PROVO — During the offseason, there were plenty of changes at BYU’s linebacker position.
First, Ed Lamb became the new linebackers coach after spending the previous two seasons as the safeties coach. Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, the former linebackers coach, is now coaching the defensive line.
The Cougars also lost outside linebacker Fred Warner, who was a third-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers last spring. Warner led the team in tackles last season and was the heart and soul of the defense.
Then senior Zayne Anderson, a safety, and senior Sione Takitaki, a defensive lineman, were moved to the outside linebacker position. They are the projected starters along with senior Butch Pau’u, who will continue to patrol the middle linebacker spot.
“Fred was more schooled up in the linebacker position than Sione and Zayne, who are new to that spot,” Lamb said. “Butch brings a lot of experience. The athleticism and tenacity of Zayne and Sione really make up for any inexperience they have. I have super-high expectations for both of those guys. I like the speed, the size and the strength of our guys, and I love the way they’re working.”
In 2016 as a sophomore, Pau’u became a star known for his big smile and bone-jarring tackles. He tied a BYU record for most tackles in a game (19) against UCLA, and ended up as the Cougars’ second-leading tackler.
But last year, Pau’u battled weight issues and injuries. He still finished No. 3 on the team in tackles, but it certainly wasn't an enjoyable season for him.
Lamb has noticed a big change in Pau’u. He’s trimmed down and he’s looking more like the 2016 version of himself.
“He’s a totally different guy. His mental approach is different. His leadership approach is different,” Lamb said. “He’s much more positive. He’s always taken the game very seriously, but the pressure of not winning, the pressure of being not fit to play, those things can overwhelm a young guy sometimes. Right now, he’s in a really good place, and he's bringing tremendous leadership.”
During fall camp, Pau’u appears to be having fun again.
“Yeah, smiling Butch is back. Thank goodness,” Pau'u said. “My parents gave me the longest talk a couple weeks ago about how I just wasn’t happy last year. But we are back. It is good to be back.”
Meanwhile, Anderson appears to have made a smooth transition from safety to outside linebacker — taking over Warner’s former spot. Anderson recorded 61 tackles, two interceptions, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and three forced fumbles at safety a year ago.
Anderson likes what he’s seen out of the linebackers in fall camp.
“We’ve got a really good group,” he said. “We have a bunch of seniors. So there’s a lot of leadership and experience in the group.”
Takitaki finished No. 2 in total tackles (79) last season, to go along with five sacks and four quarterback hurries at defensive end.
I like the speed, the size and the strength of our guys, and I love the way they’re working.” – BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb
The Cougars seem to have solid depth at linebacker, though not a lot of experience behind Anderson, Pau’u and Takitaki.
Senior Adam Pulsipher started five games last season at outside linebacker, and he can play any of the linebacking spots.
“Adam Pulsipher has really stepped forward, and he’s one of the smartest players on the team regardless of position,” Lamb said.
Senior Riggs Powell, a Cabrillo College transfer, has emerged as a contributor at linebacker.
“Riggs Powell has really solidified himself as a starting-caliber player,” Lamb said. “He’s going to play a lot.”
Other backups include sophomore Isaiah Kaufusi, senior Rhett Sandlin, freshman Christian Folau, freshman Max Tooley, freshman Drew Jensen and freshman Payton Wilgar.
“Some of the young guys who have stepped up and are fighting for the boundary linebacker spot with Sione are Isaiah Kaufusi, Max Tooley, Drew Jensen and Payton Wilgar,” Lamb said.
“I feel like the second team is pushing us. You’ve got Riggs Powell, Rhett Sandlin, Christian Folau, and there’s some freshmen that are just home from missions that are picking it up as well,” Anderson said.
Last year during fall camp, BYU announced that starting linebacker Francis Bernard would be redshirting. After not playing in 2017, Bernard ended up leaving the Cougars, and this week joined Utah’s program.
In Bernard’s absence last season, Matt Hadley moved from safety to linebacker. Hadley missed most of the season due to an injury, and now he’s a running back. However, he’s also listed as a linebacker and could move back to the defensive side of the ball if needed.
“He’s so smart that he can move over to the defense right now and be just fine,” said coach Kalani Sitake.