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PROVO — Dayan Lake didn’t think he’d start a college football game at cornerback.
The former Northridge High running back would sneak over to play with the offensive players when he’d attend BYU summer camps in his youth, but then-assistant coach Nick Howell would signal for him to rejoin the defensive backfield as soon as he caught on.
“I played mostly running back, and some nickel,” Lake told reporters after practice this week. “But I knew I was playing corner (at BYU), though.
“I wasn’t big on playing cornerback. I just wanted to play straight nickel; I feel like (cornerback) didn’t really fit me in BYU’s defense at first, which is why I thought about changing to San Diego State or Utah.”
Sometimes, coaches know best.
Lake has worked his way into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman, supplanting senior Michael Davis as the Cougars prepare for Saturday’s noon kickoff against UMass (2-8) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“It’s a continual battle every day, and the kids know that the best players are going to play,” BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “It’s just what happened to be — with all the battling, Dayan has done a good job and showed up every week to play. The position is always up for grabs, but he’s done a really good job.”
Lake didn’t play in 2015 after joining the Cougars as a true freshman, but his redshirt route was a bit more circuitous than most. He didn’t intend to furlough the season, but grades and NCAA clearinghouse rules kept him off the field for the season.
Because he wasn’t a traditional redshirt, Lake wasn’t even allowed to travel with BYU to its postseason destination, a 35-28 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
For that reason, he didn’t think of starting through spring ball. After all, Davis was the leader of a young secondary that also included true freshmen Troy Warner and Chris Wilcox. Lake would be content filling in whatever role he needed.
“I didn’t expect to start; we have a ton of corners, and I just wanted to compete and hope for a starting spot,” said Lake, who has 38 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions. “I’ve been getting better with Troy and Mike Davis, and that helped me compete and motivated me to get the starting job.”
Lake worked on his technique with cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. He put in his time as a reserve, including a career-high nine tackles and an interception in the Cougars’ 55-53 win over Toledo. Still, he waited and learned from the likes of Davis and Warner.
“We learn from each other in the meeting rooms,” Lake said of his fellow cornerbacks. “Having Mike Davis as the only senior, it shows how much talent we got at a young age. BYU is going to have DBs for a long time.”
Before BYU’s home kickoff Oct. 14 against Mississippi State, Lake received the news that he had earned the first start at cornerback of his collegiate career. He then pulled down the second interception of his career the next week, and returned it 50 yards for a pick-six in the Cougars’ 28-27 loss at No. 14 Boise State.
“That was big,” Lake said. “I knew I had to get in the end zone, because I had a flashback of getting caught on the five against Toledo. It helped that Boise State’s sideline was crooked.”
Tuiaki’s defense allows Lake and the rest of the Cougars to make plays like the pick-six against Boise — even if they have to freelance a bit to do it.
But they had better make the play, too.
“If we ask them to do one thing and they do something else to make a play, then the coaching point is ‘if you are going to be wrong, you had better be right,’” Tuiaki said. “I’m not a stickler on that. But if you are going to do it wrong and it hurts us, then we’ll get that fixed and coached up.
“You’ve got to allow them a little room to be an athlete.”
An athlete is what BYU got in Lake, the Region 1 co-offensive MVP who put up 164.4 yards per game with another 41.5 yards per kick return.
For now, Lake is content to stick to the system, though. It’s worked out fine for him thus far.
“The coaches helped us pick it up really fast,” Lake said of Tuiaki’s defense. “It’s not a hard defense. You just play fast, and when you know the defense, it’s easier.”