BYU football: Departures leave Cougars thin on defensive line

Big 2020 contributors and starters Khyiris Tonga, Zac Dawe and Bracken El Bakri are in the NFL, at least for now, and rising star Seleti Fevaleaki is on the transfer portal.

In other words, BYU’s line of defense in 2021 is considered to be the most inexperienced positional group on the team. Of the nine defensive linemen on the depth chart, the Cougars ended the season last year beating central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl, only five are back.

Does that keep defense coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki up at night?

Not really.

“I sleep pretty well,” Tuiaki said at BYU Football Media Day last month in his familiar, relaxed style.

Of course, that was before the news broke that Fevaleaki was on the portal. The Redshirt freshman, who returned to missionary from Centennial High in Corona, California, appeared in 10 games during BYU’s 11-1 season, making six tackles and one sack (against the Navy).

“No question about it, we’re young there (on the defensive). There are a lot of young players who don’t have a lot of playing time who need to move up. “- BYU Defense Coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.

Still, Tuiaki hinted at the time that his defense could soon lose an expected contributor, and Fevaleaki was not on the post-spring depth chart distributed on June 17. Fevaleaki, who was recruited by Tuiaki and head coach Kalani Sitake when they were at Utah and then Oregon State, but followed them to Provo after a church mission in Saint Louis, Missouri, started in 2017 and finally began to show its potential .

“One of the kids who played for us (last year) and wanted to be a really good player might not be with us,” said Tuiaki. “But that’s still up in the air, so I don’t want to talk about him.”

Assuming he doesn’t return, Fevaleaki will go missing – especially in a year where BYU’s depth is being tested early. The Cougars open the season against Arizona in Las Vegas on September 4th, then host Utah, Arizona State and South Florida on consecutive Saturdays before playing in Utah State on Friday, October 1st.

October is just as difficult, with Boise State, Baylor, Washington State, and Virginia this month, along with the Aggies.

Against these teams – especially the Utes and Sun Devils – it will be difficult to stop the run, and BYU is nowhere near as prepared as it was last year. There are also concerns about passport noise.

“No question about it, we’re young there,” said Tuiaki. “There are a lot of young players who don’t have a lot of playing time that need to be promoted.”

At least the guys from the coaching staff will get a lot of attention.

When Sitake added linebacker coach Kevin Clune in February and gave the Cougars a fifth coach on the defensive side of the ball, he moved safety coach Preston Hadley to coach the defensive ends so Tuiaki could focus on the inner defensive linemen when he wasn’t The entire defense is coordinated.

“We have some talent there but not a lot of experience,” Hadley said in March. “There’s a lot that goes into being a good pass rusher.”

Redshirt Junior Lorenzo Fauatea and “Super Senior” Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua are listed as starting defensive ends on the depth table.

“If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s that we’re young at the security point and thin at the D-endpoint,” said Tuiaki.

The coaches are grateful that the 25-year-old Leiataua has decided to return. Leiataua, who was recruited by former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall of Compton, California, graduated more than a year ago. But a broken leg cut short his senior season last year, and he decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s “extra year” exemption due to COVID-19.

“Unfinished business”, is how Leiataua explains his return. “Personally, I feel like a good player, a talented player. I also feel like I didn’t live up to my expectations. They are the expectations of others than my own. “

Leiataua said he will take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) next month in hopes of entering law school if an NFL career doesn’t work out.

Redshirt freshman Tyler Batty is the other pass rusher on the list with experience. Batty got off to a sensational start with four sacks in his first four games last year but an injury disrupted his first season at Provo after a church mission in Madrid, Spain.

“We hope for a great year for Tyler Batty,” said Tuiaki. “He’s got a lot of talent when he can stay healthy.”

Batty and Long Snapper Austin Riggs were the first BYU football players to sign NIL deals last week when they agreed to support a company (Balmshot) that makes lip balm and puts it in used shotgun shells.

Inside, the cougars rely on Redshirt junior Earl Tuioti-Mariner, former Walk-On Gabe Summers, former offensive lineman Caden Haws and Atunaisa Mahe, a Redshirt student from West Jordan who has fought against a blood clot problem, the career threatened his football.

“They are all on board. You want to do it. You want to be good, ”said Tuiaki. “But it’s always nice to have a team with experience and we don’t have a lot on the defensive.”

Other defensive tackles to watch out for include Josh Larsen, John Nelson, Alden Tofa, and Blake Mangelson.

Defensive ends pushing for a spot in the rotation include Hunter Greer, Kade Pupunu, Alema Pilimai, and Fisher Jackson.

“We’ll be fine,” said Tuiaki. “We have children who want to be here, work hard and want to make a contribution.”

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