PROVO — The marquee position on BYU's football team used to be quarterback.
During the Bronco Mendenhall era, outside linebacker has seemingly become the most prestigious position on the Cougars' team.
Names like Bryan Kehl, David Nixon, Jordan Pendleton, Spencer Hadley and, most notably, Kyle Van Noy have taken a lot of the spotlight since 2006. That was the year Mendenhall abandoned his 3-3-5 defense in favor of a more linebacker-friendly 3-4 alignment.
“Outside linebackers have been the playmakers on this defense since 2006,” said outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, who played the position at BYU in 2006. “You look at every defense since we switched to a 3-4 and it’s the outside linebackers making the plays. It’s because of the talent at outside linebacker that (coach Mendenhall) switched to the 3-4.”
This year’s group may feature the best set of outside linebackers BYU has fielded during Mendenhall’s tenure. Van Noy returns for his senior season to man the weakside (will) position, with Spencer Hadley ready to reprise his role at strongside (sam) linebacker.
Both players know the focus will be on them this season.
“No position on this defense is more important than any other position, but we definitely feel a leadership role,” Hadley said. “After the incredible season Kyle had and the way this defense is designed it’s always going to be a focus on the outside linebackers and we’re fine with that.”
“I love this defense and how coaches let us play and that’s one of the big reasons I came back for my senior year,” Van Noy added. “It’s the perfect system for me and my strengths, but we aren’t satisfied with what we did last year. We want to get better and are working to get better every day.”
Van Noy has bulked up to close to 245 pounds but hopes to maintain his speed and quickness.
Van Noy and Hadley are certainly the headliners at outside linebacker, but they are hardly alone in providing strength at the position. Many are expecting a breakout season from junior Alani Fua, who was a standout throughout spring practices.
Fua’s emergence will allow coaches to tinker with alignments this season in an effort to get the best 11 players on the field at the same time.
Last season saw Mendenhall employ a 2-5-4 alignment in certain situations. He may expand on that creativity in 2013.
“We’re going to be showing things fans and opponents have never seen before with our defense,” Poppinga said. “I’m obviously not going to be specific about it, but you all will see it against Virginia and I’m very excited about the possibilities. We simply have great outside linebackers and we need to get them on the field to make plays and it looks like Alani is going to be one of our great playmakers potentially.”
The next guy in behind Van Noy, Hadley and Fua will likely be sophomore Jherremya Leuta-Douyere. Others competing for playing time include recently returned missionaries Joey Owens, Sae Tautu and incoming freshman Trajan Pili.
“This group certainly has the potential to be the best set of outside linebackers we’ve ever had,” Poppinga said. “It’s up to them to rise to the challenge and up to me to coach them like they deserve. The potential for these guys is very high.”