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BYU’s linebackers and defensive line

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BYU has long been known for its prolific passing offense and record-setting quarterbacks. But these days, the Cougar defense is establishing a reputation of its own, at least in the Mountain West Conference.

Once again, BYU has a punishing defensive front seven that should put the fear of sod into opposing offenses. Last year, the Cougars led the MWC in rushing defense (102 yards allowed per game) and were second in total defense (307 ypg).

"Our front seven gives us in the defensive secondary a lot of confidence," said safety Jared Lee.

Though the Cougars have lost two stars — linebacker Rob Morris and defensive end Byron Frisch — to the NFL, BYU coaches don't expect much of a drop-off in performance. "We're as good as we've ever been up front," said coach LaVell Edwards.

At linebacker, the Cougars believe they have another Morris-like player manning the middle in junior Justin Ena. "He has Rob's quickness and decisiveness," Edwards said. "He's going to be a good one."

The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Ena was moved from outside linebacker to the middle during fall camp and has shined. Senior Jeff Holtry (6-3, 245) and junior Isaac Kelley (6-4, 250) will play on the outside, and senior Josh Lowe (6-4, 245) will come off the bench, though he figures to see plenty of playing time, perhaps at all three positions. Holtry also has experience at middle linebacker, having started four games there last season when Morris went down with an injury.

The only concern about the linebackers is how well they can hold up after an off-season that saw Holtry, Kelley and Lowe undergo major surgeries. Holtry went under the knife to repair a damaged knee. Kelley and Lowe each had back surgery.

"They need to come on for us to have a solid defense," Edwards said. "If they do, then, as a group, our linebackers will be every bit as strong as last year."

True freshman Paul Walkenhorst (6-5, 230), a former Lone Peak High star, has impressed during fall camp. Both he and redshirt freshman Ammon Mauga (6-0, 215) will also be part of the rotation.

Up front, senior right end Setema Gali leads a veteran group. "He's as quick a defensive lineman as we've had," Edwards said. "He's very intense and a hard-worker."

Gali (6-4, 250) was a member of the all-MWC second team in 1999, recording 39 tackles, 10 tackles for loss for a minus-55 yards and seven sacks for a minus-48 yards.

Junior Ryan Denney (6-7, 280) will start at the other end with junior Brett Keisel (6-4, 250), a converted tight end who spent last season at Snow College, backing him up.

At tackle, senior starters Hans Olsen (6-4, 295) and Chris Hoke (6-3, 285) return with sophomores Chris Watkins (6-2, 285) and Jimmy Betham (6-1, 285) behind them.

"With all those guys, we will be able to rotate at tackle," Edwards said. "Each of them has a lot of experience."

E-MAIL: jeffc@desnews.com