PROVO — It certainly helps that BYU junior linebacker Manoa Pikula has been there before.
During his senior year at Bingham High, Pikula helped lead one of the most fearsome prep defenses ever assembled in the state.
“We could have competed with anyone in the country that year, no doubt in my mind,” the junior said of Bingham’s nationally ranked 2010 team, a squad that went undefeated and beat opponents by an average of 39.6 points.
Four years into his career at BYU, Pikula is being asked to fill a similar role as one of the assumed starters at inside linebacker — specifically the "Buck linebacker" position. Inside linebacker is a critical position in any 3-4 defensive alignment, not just in terms of making plays, but in terms of being a leader.
Assuming a true leadership mantle is something Pikula seems well-suited for.
During BYU’s football media day, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior enthusiastically fielded questions from the media, expressing great confidence in his defense and particularly his cohorts at inside linebacker. Pikula ran down BYU’s current stock of inside linebackers like a seasoned coach — very aware of each player’s strengths and current status.
On senior Zac Stout: “I have so much respect for Zac and what he’s become as a person and a player. He had a great spring (practice) and is really going to help us this year. I have nothing but love for him.”
On junior Teu Kautai: “He’s been putting on good weight since his labrum injury last year and working as hard as anyone. I think he’s going to really have a big year.”
On junior Jherremya Leuta-Douyere, who switched over from outside to inside linebacker in the spring: “He’s learning it and has a great attitude about switching and is learning fast how to be a great inside linebacker.”
On sophomore Austin Heder: “He’s a fast learner, someone who really studies hard and does the work outside of practice. He’s young, but he’s no one people should sleep on because he’s so committed.”
On freshman Adam Pulsipher: “He got hurt in spring, but he was killing it, like Austin, before that. Him, along with (Heder), make our meetings a lot shorter because they’re always on the ball. I was seriously shocked at how fast the young guys have learned things.”
On freshman Toloa’i Ho Ching: “He’s one of the strongest guys on the team and a future star. He has it all from what I’ve seen and could factor in this year, although it’s going to be tough. He has a bright future, no doubt.”
Pikula will also be joined on defense by former Bingham teammate and close friend Kesni Tausinga, who recently returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to turn heads in spring while playing along the defensive front.
“I told people when he came back he would be getting it done,” Pikula said. “He’s all nice and soft-spoken off the field, but when he gets on he’s fearless and we’re already seeing it.”
Another former Bingham teammate, Tuni Kanuch, recently switched to offensive line from defensive line, a move that is a bit bittersweet from Pikula’s perspective.
“I know he’s going to be great for the offensive line, but man, I hate going against him in practice,” Pikula said. “He’s so tough and so physical. You can already see the offensive line benefiting from just his presence there. It’s exciting to see.”
As for own Pikula’s demeanor and play leading up to the season, inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell has been roundly impressed.
“He’s really embraced the role as much as anyone I’ve had here,” Tidwell said. “He’s had some great guys — guys who did things right to watch and emulate — but Manoa, maybe more so than most, really wants that role as leader and just genuinely loves football. He loves everything involved with the game. I think he’s going to become the whole package for us.”
As for becoming a dominant defense — the type of defense he led while at Bingham — Pikula firmly believes this year's BYU team has that potential.
"Our defensive backs are great behind me — really good, probably the best I've seen since I've been here as far as playmaking ability. The defensive line will be great, the outside linebackers — Bronson (Kaufusi) and Alani (Fua) — you just wait and see how good those guys are," he said. "I think it's pretty much just on me and the other inside linebackers. If we can do our part we're going to be dominant."