Senior Joe Sampson is ready. He knows the defense and is fully confident that he can make the right calls as a free safety in Coach Mendenhall’s defense.
“The free safety spot is basically like the quarterback of the defense. You have to make all the calls and all the checks and make sure everyone is in their spots, and that’s alright by me because I know the defense really well. I’m really enjoying it.”
In addition to playing free safety on day one of fall camp, Sampson also played other roles on the defense based on the defensive call.
“When I wasn’t playing free safety I was moved over to the nickel spot in our nickel package with the ones,” Sampson said. “When I wasn’t in the nickel, Mike [Hague] was the next one in, so I’m the first nickel and he’s the second nickel. I also think Hague is the second free safety too.”
That’s how it played out on day one. Well, mostly. Hague replaced Sampson with the second defensive unit, but Skye PoVey also got a chance to sub in ahead of Hague for a few series at the free safety position.
“Yeah, Skye is doing a good job and he’s been picking it up,” Sampson said. “He and Mike have been going back and forth when I’m in the nickel. It’s good to have that depth back there.
“We’ve got a lot of returning starters and a lot of people that have playing experience. That’s something that has really helped us in our chemistry in the secondary. That part has been really good. We’ve been working on specific packages for some time now and it’s been going really good.”
The Cougar secondary ran a lot of nickel on day one of fall camp, and their demeanor when changing from one package to another suggested that it was very natural and comfortable for them.
“Our chemistry is really good when we go into the nickel package,” said Sampson. “It’s like a second home for us when we switch into it. We’re so comfortable in that scheme that we can throw that in at any time. Even if we’re in the nickel package and they decide to run the ball, we’ve still got an answer for it. I think it will be very beneficial for us.”
The Cougars run the nickel so well that it’s made things tough for senior quarterback Riley Nelson.
“Geez man! You can’t take advantage of a lot of guys anymore,” Nelson said with a smile on his face. “With that nickel package and having Joe out there, you know, they don’t have to buzz to the flats. They don’t have to move as much because they’re so athletic and quicker to their spots. They can just sit there and play you.”
With BYU playing a more traditional man-zone defense in the 3-4 scheme, the extra back makes those spaces a lot smaller in their coverage schemes.
“Well, before when it was just linebackers, they had to run to the flat, they had to drop to the curl and just get going to get where they need to be,” Nelson said. “Now you have all these nickel guys out there and they’re like, ‘Alright, what are you going to do bud?’”
The extra speed and dynamics of the nickel package have posed a challenge for Nelson.
“It’s really good practice for me because I probably struggled the most against TCU last year and that’s what they did,” Nelson said. “They threw in that nickelback and kind of said, ‘Make your move, because we’re so confident in what we’re doing we’re going to react to you.’”
Nelson believes that going against the nickel package in practice will help refine his ability as a passer.
“So this will definitely help me, and you have to be decisive in your reads and quick and on time even more now than going against a traditional defense where you can get away with things a little more,” said Nelson. “It forces you as a quarterback to be more precise and accurate. It helps with your reading skills and reading the secondary.
“Now, from a fan standpoint as one who is a fan of our defense, I think it’s awesome. We have a ton of athletes at a ton of positions, but I think we have a lot of talent in our defensive secondary. We have a lot of guys who probably deserve to be out on the field. When you have so many playmakers, it’s good to see guys like Joe Sampson out there at different positions because he’s so talented. I’m excited to face it again and throughout fall camp.”
Sampson feels that what occurred on day one will continue on until camp is all but wrapped up with a bow on top. He’s also confident that he can make his case for a starting safety position by the time BYU takes on Washington State to open the season.
“I’m ready to make it my own and solidify that position,” said Sampson. “I’m confident that what you’re seeing out here today will be the same when we start the season. I’m ready to go.”