(Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
This story was originally printed in the BYU-Middle Tennessee State football Gameday program, Sept. 27, 2013
Daniel Sorensen can be overlooked on a team full of defensive stars. There is not anything flashy about him or his game. He is just a blue-collar football player who has used his hard work and physical play to earn him a starting spot on one of the nation’s top defenses.
“He’s not the spotlight guy, but if you want to watch a good football player, come to LaVell Edwards Stadium and watch him play,” coach Nick Howell said. “You’re watching an NFL safety play.”
Sorensen grew up in a football family. All of his brothers have played college football, and his brother Brad Sorensen was drafted by the San Diego Chargers last year. So developing a strong work ethic began when he was young.
“I feel like I had to work hard because I have four brothers, and they are all better than me at everything,” Sorensen said. “I had to work twice as hard to compete and hang with my older brothers.”
Brad Sorensen remembered them always competing in everything they could, and Daniel Sorensen had a motor that wouldn’t quit.
“Growing up we used to joke that he has only one speed and that translated really well to football,” Brad Sorensen said. “It’s a huge advantage because he is full speed and reacting to the football at all times.”
Coach Howell remembered one play that demonstrated this competitive drive against Boise State last year. The Broncos recovered a fumble on the 1-yard line and ESPN announcers discussed how a touchdown would be the nail in the coffin for the Cougars. The defense, though, had other ideas. On the best scoring chance for the Broncos, quarterback Joe Southwick threw a bubble screen to DJ Harper who appeared to have the sideline open for a touchdown. After being clipped by Spencer Hadley, Sorensen met Harper at the 1-yard line and turned him sideways, preventing him from reaching the ball across the plane.
However, it isn’t big plays like this that give Sorensen the most satisfaction.
“Some of the best plays are when there is something that you struggle with, and you just can’t get it for some reason and then it clicks,” Sorensen said. “It is so gratifying. For example, as a sophomore I struggled reading my keys, and I would get caught looking in the backfield a lot because I was just so immature. Then working on it over the offseason and coming back it was so gratifying to make plays that I wasn’t making the year before.”
It may have been difficult to imagine Sorensen making any big plays his freshman year. Sorensen’s career began on the sidelines. He would come to practice, go through warm-ups and individual drills and then he would take a knee on the sideline. He was buried on the depth chart behind safeties David Tafuna, Kellen Fowler and Andrew Rich. He never remembers seeing the field until one scrimmage in fall camp. Sorensen made the most of his first live action.
“I was so frustrated that I was like, ‘I’m just going to hit people as hard as I can.’” Sorensen said. “I remember breaking my helmet during the scrimmage. I tried to tell the coaches I couldn’t really see because my helmet was hanging sideways, but they had me stay in there.”
His physical play must have caught the coaches’ eyes, because after this experience Sorensen was moved to outside linebacker and played in 12 games as a true freshman. Sorensen credited his opportunity to shine to lessons learned in high school.
“That only happened because I learned to be that way in high school,” Sorensen said. “We also had a culture of being physical in high school, and that is something I prided myself on.”
His brother recalled Sorensen making himself this reputation in high school during a game against their rival.
“His junior year he was playing against our rival high school, and there were back-to-back plays where they threw over the middle,” Brad Sorensen said. “He just cleaned the receiver’s clock the first time and everyone was going crazy, but for some reason they decided to run the same play again and he just about knocked the kid’s head off again. The rest of that game and season nobody wanted to throw the ball over the middle. He developed a reputation for being able to hit.”
Sorensen likes to play this way because of what it can do for the defense.
“Being physical is fun and you can affect the game in a lot of different ways,” Sorensen said. “I mean if you can get a good hit on a wide receiver it will be in the back of his head next time he goes across the middle.”
Sorensen left to serve a mission in San Jose, Costa Rica, after his freshman season. There he lost some of the weight he had put on to play linebacker and picked up a few additional skills, which helped him return to his natural position of safety.
“We worked hard on the mission, it was hot and we walked a lot,” Sorensen said. “I learned a lot of humility and hard work, and it has really helped me mentally. Also, I matured and learned how to work together with somebody else and that is a big part of the [safety] position. Now that I am a senior it has also helped me to try and get the best out of my teammates and doing what’s best for the team.”
Sorensen would need these skills in the first two games of his sophomore season when they opened play in hostile territory, first in SEC country against Ole Miss and then in Austin against Texas and 100,000 screaming fans clad in burnt orange.
“When I got home my sophomore year there wasn’t any [upperclassmen] to look to for help,” Sorensen said. “So I had to learn on my own and with the help of coach Howell.”
Sorensen spent much of his time in the film room analyzing his game and trying to learn which techniques worked and which did not. Each game he would then try to use his newfound knowledge to perfect his skills. He is now passing on what he learned to the incoming safeties.
“The last few years I have been able to teach some of the younger kids, and that has really helped me a lot,” Sorensen said. “You can never know enough when explaining that stuff, and it is something that you will never be good enough at.”
Coach Howell has seen the results of his hard work and dedication to helping his teammates.
“When you turn on the film, no one plays as hard as him and no one understands the defense better than him,” coach Howell said. “You can count on him all the time because he’s always there making plays. If they’re running the ball up the field, he’s going to make the tackle, no question about it.”
Although there may not have been upperclassmen to learn from when he came home, Sorensen has received help along the way from two important sources.
“My brother has been a big help for me,” Sorensen said. “He and I have been really close, and he has led the way for me. He always has good advice and knows from experience what I am going through. So he has really helped me with some of the difficult times in my career motivating me and coaching me up. He’s always really positive and encouraging me.”
Brad Sorensen said he has mostly tried to help Sorensen with more off-the-field situations in preparation for his senior season and to help him avoid any mistakes that he wishes he could have avoided.
“We have such a good relationship that we could talk because we were both in the same situation playing football, dating and getting ready to marry,” Brad Sorensen said. “I just try to talk to him about the process of things that I experienced in football. You know, things to focus on whether it’s what he’s hearing from media, coaches or scouts.”
The second person Sorensen cited as having an impact on his career is his position coach.
“Second to my brother, coach Howell has been the most influential person in my career. He is really driven to see you succeed and reach your potential. At first it can be frustrating because he is so frank and honest, and he is going to tell you what your doing wrong. As soon as you get out on the field, though, it is business and he always holds you to a standard. Still, he is a guy that you can go into his office and talk about anything with because he is very down to earth and can be your best friend. “
Coach Howell said Sorensen has the whole package and a representative of the university.
“As a football player he is everything you want him to be,” coach Howell said. “He plays hard, he’s tough and he’s athletic. He always knows the game plan, and people look up to him because he knows what he’s doing. If there is one guy on the defense that’s doing what’s right, it’s always him.
“Aside from football, he’s always doing what’s right and being an example off the field. He is a BYU guy from academics, to spirituality, to football. He represents our program in every aspect.”
Sorensen has had a successful career, but when he leaves Provo the games will not be the most memorable part.
“At the end of the day, the most memorable and most enjoyable part of the experience is hanging out with the guys.” Sorensen said. “In the DBs we have a really close group. It has been a lot of fun traveling across the country too. I mean, if it wasn’t for football I would never have made a trip out to Mississippi, Georgia and Indiana.”
Brad Sorensen believes that if Sorensen continues to work hard this may not be the end of his career. He said that what makes him great is the drive he has in the offseason.
“He’s extremely dedicated to his craft,” Brad Sorensen said. “There were several times where I was supposed to be the older brother and the role model and he would be the one that would say ‘Come on let’s go out running. Let’s go out and do something to get ready.’
However, Brad Sorensen advised his brother to keep his mind on his senior year.
“I told him ‘Don’t focus on the NFL because people will notice you with the competition you’re facing. Right now, focus on winning each game and when the season is over, then you can focus on the NFL.’”
The NFL may come calling, but for now fans will be thankful for the advice with the integral role Sorensen plays on a secondary depleted by injuries.
Notable No. Nines
Austin Collie (2004, 2007-08) came to BYU from El Dorado Hills, Calif. He is one of the best receivers to ever play at BYU and coming into the 2013 season he held the career records for receiving yards (3,255) and receiving touchdowns (30). He also holds the single-season records for receptions (106), receiving yards (1,538) and receiving touchdowns (15). As a sophomore, Collie may be most remembered for getting behind coverage to catch a 49-yard pass to help BYU complete the last-minute comeback against Utah. His junior year he had 11 straight games with 100 yards or more receiving, led the nation with 118.31 receiving yards per game and was named an All-American. Collie chose to leave for the NFL after his junior season. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and saw some success before being derailed by concussion problems. Currently he is a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
Jim McMahon (1977-81) from Roy, Utah, led BYU to its first bowl victory in the 1980 Holiday Bowl over SMU. In the game, known as the “Miracle Bowl” to BYU fans, McMahon guided his team to the win after being down 20 points with four minutes left. The final offensive play of the comeback was a Hail Mary pass from McMahon to Clay Brown. Between the 1980 and 1981 seasons, McMahon threw 300 or more yards in 13 straight games including the bowl game. He was named a first-team All-American as a junior and senior by multiple publications. In 1981, he was also awarded the Davey O’Brien Trophy and Sammy Baugh Award, and finished third in the Heisman voting. In his career he broke 75 NCAA records and was drafted fifth overall by the Chicago Bears. He went on to win the Super Bowl XX with the Bears in 1986. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
Ervin Lee (1988-91) from Navasota, Texas, was a three-year letter winner at BYU. He may not be one of the well-known names in BYU history, but was a key factor in BYU’s win over No. 1 Miami in 1990. Lee came up big for the Cougar defense twice with the team clinging to a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter. With 6:30 left and Miami facing a third down from their 13-yard line, Lee wrestled the ball away from the receiver to intercept the ball in the end zone. Nearly five minutes later with Miami facing a fourth down from the BYU 25-yard line, Lee again provided perfect coverage, turning at the last moment and swatting the ball away from the receiver to preserve the victory. For his efforts he was named the player of the game by coaches.
Dennis Simmons (1992-96) from Memphis, Tenn., was a three-year contributor at outside linebacker for BYU. He played in four bowl games, including the 1996 Cotton Bowl, the only January bowl game in which BYU has played. In 2008 he began his NCAA Division I coaching career at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. He coached wide receivers and helped Michael Crabtree win the Biletnikoff Trophy. He is currently serving as the outside receivers coach for Washington State.
Jared Lee (1998-2000) from Rexburg, Idaho, came to BYU from Ricks College and was a two-year starter at safety. As a junior he led BYU’s defense with 96 tackles and four interceptions. Playing Division I football was somewhat of a miracle for Jared, who was diagnosed in eighth grade with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disease in which the immune system begins to attack the body’s nerves. Jared spent a week and a half in the intensive care unit completely paralyzed. Following a recommendation from his brother, doctors tried an experimental treatment, which aided to a quick recovery for the eighth grader.