PROVO — BYU’s up-and-down football season and wildly inconsistent play from one week to the next has produced all kinds of crazy statistics in all three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams.
One that stands out from the defense is that linebackers have come up with eight of the team’s nine interceptions this year. Senior cornerback/safety Dayan Ghanwoloku is the lone member of the secondary with a pick, the game-saver against No. 24 USC, which was deflected by, naturally, a linebacker — Chaz Ah You.
“Those guys have been balling out. They’re all good athletes, have good hands.” — BYU’s Dayan Ghanwoloku, on the team’s linebackers
“Those guys have been balling out,” said Ghanwoloku, still BYU’s most gifted ballhawk. “They’re all good athletes, have good hands.”
Linebackers coach Ed Lamb said the defense’s “umbrella coverage” strategy and emphasis on “keeping the ball in front of us” has led to the uncommon ratio of linebacker-to-secondary interceptions.
“We have some corners who can run fast, so it is not as easy for some teams to throw the ball down the boundary,” Lamb said. “So some teams are trying to work the underneath middle more against us and our linebackers have done a really good job of keeping their eyes on the quarterback, staying balanced with body position.”
Junior linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi and freshman LB Payton Wilgar have two picks apiece, while Ah You, junior Kavika Fonua, and freshmen Max Tooley and Jackson Kaufusi have one each. Tooley came the closest to getting a pick-six, returning a takeaway against Washington inside the Huskies’ 10-yard line after senior safety Austin Lee tipped UW quarterback Jacob Eason’s pass.
“Coaches put me in the right place for that one, and Austin really made the play happen,” said Tooley, who took some ribbing from his teammates because it appeared he mistook the 5-yard-line for the goal line and lost the ball while reaching for the would-be end zone. Replay showed his knee was down before the ball came out.
Lee said the linebackers occasionally tease the safeties and corners about having more picks than them, but in the end it is all good.
“You are happy that they are able to go through their progressions and get turnovers,” Lee said. “It makes us happy on the back end, because teams are not making too many plays when your backers are taking the ball away.”
Isaiah and Jackson Kaufusi became the first set of brothers to record interceptions in the same game (Boise State) in BYU history.
“That’s pretty cool,” Isaiah Kaufusi said.
BYU is tied for 15th in the country in total interceptions, but has generally played one fewer game than most teams, having had two byes. Oregon leads with 14, but just three were by linebackers.
Ballhawking has been the young linebackers’ best trait. Weakness at stopping the run has been their worst, as has been well-documented. Coaches hope that moving Ghanwoloku from corner to safety, where he is better in run support, will continue to help.
Despite incremental success against BSU, the Cougars are still 121st in the country, allowing 217.3 yards per game on the ground. They are 88th in scoring defense (29.7 points per game) and 76th in total defense (405.3 yards per game).
“I am happy that they have gotten better over the course of the season,” Lamb said. “They need to just continue to get stronger and more veteran in the way they approach the games and the seasons. I hope that becomes better over time. But for a young group of players, I think they have really been tough-minded.”
When he was safeties coach, Lamb rotated safeties a lot, and he’s doing the same thing with the linebackers while searching for that unique combination of run-stopper and pass-defender.
“I don’t know if there is a linebacker in that rotation that I couldn’t speak positively about right now,” Lamb said. “I just think about where they started, where they are at now, and what their future might hold. I feel positively about all of them.”
Cougars on the air
BYU (3-4) at Utah State (4-3)
At Maverik Stadium, Logan
Saturday, 8 p.m.
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM