The importance of taking a giant leap in defensive proficiency in 2018 is not lost on BYU’s defensive coaching staff.
It’s also a preamble to the 2019 spring football campaign which begins in Provo next month.
The coaches are humbled to have had the talents of Sione Takitaki, Corbin Kaufusi and others. They hope to build on that for 2019, but part of it is out of their control.
There’s a key element about why the 2018 BYU defense was the nation’s most improved pass defense from 2017 (105th to 22nd) and ranked second only to Washington in yards allowed per pass completion.
Ilaisa Tuiaki and Ed Lamb were asked just how such a leap was possible, an improvement in almost every defensive category.
Lamb, assistant head coach over linebackers and special teams, said it was simple. And Tuiaki, the Cougars' defensive coordinator, seconded the notion.
“We both feel like one of the big opportunities created on defense was the improvement of the offense,” said Lamb.
When BYU struggled for a few seasons, opponents didn’t use drop back pass formations much, went to quick passes and used a lot of max protect. “The opportunity to get sacks, tackles for loss and interceptions really goes down when you're losing. The fact that we were able to just compete a little better this year on the offensive side of the ball and score helped the defense.”
BYU defense by the numbers
- Scoring margin from 2017 at -99 to 2018 at +76 (Difference of +175) – improvement ranked No. 9 in FBS
- Scoring offense improved 10.1 PPG (17.1 to 27.2) ranked 124 to 79
- Red zone TD percentage - Improved from 44.74% to 69.23% (24.49 percentage points) - ranked 126 to 23
- Turnovers lost improved by 10 (27 to 17) ranked 121 to 35
- Scoring defense improved 3.3 PPG (24.7 to 21.4) ranked 46 to 24
- Pass efficiency defense improved 26.3 points (141.6 to 115.3) ranked 105 to 22 – the biggest improvement in the FBS
- Rushing defense improved 17.54 YPG (147.62 to 130.08) ranked 44 to 27
- Passing defense improved 31.2 YPG (225.2 to 194.0) ranked 67 to 30
- Total defense improved 48.7 YPG (372.8 to 324.1) ranked 51 to 18
Lamb said he didn’t mean that to be a criticism of the efforts of the offense to get better or take anything away from improvements the coaches had accomplished each year, regardless of the season. “But I would credit at least part (or our success) to our offensive players and their coaches to put more pressure on the opponent.”
Tuiaki credits the players and tips his hat to the offense. “A lot of players stepped up and played a lot of different positions on offense and defense. There were a lot of freshmen that got involved this past year. Credit them. They did it.”
Tuiaki said while each player has his own story, certain guys are hard to replace. “You never fully replace a Fred Warner or Sione Takitaki or Corbin Kaufusi, but what happens is another guy’s number is called and somebody has to step up.”
Lamb said the 2019 defense will miss Takitaki and Kaufusi because they brought a real edge to the way the defense played.
“It will be tough to lose Corbin and Sione. They did it in opposite ways as seniors. Corbin always had a smile on his face at every practice and meeting — he was the fun party face, always having a great time. Sione was a guy you had to keep sharp objects away from because he’d use it on his opponents and his own team in a heartbeat just for the sake of competition. But those two guys together inspired everyone to play together no matter the record or the score or what was happening in the season. They gave it their all and will be difficult to replace,” Lamb said.
When told the defensive coaches tossed his side some praise, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said he appreciated it. “That’s very gracious,” he said.
“That means a lot to me because I value what those guys have done. They played tough defense and got us the ball in good position a lot," Grimes said. "When we played our best, we played as a team. You could see it and you could feel it. Our defense played with more energy when we were scoring and moving the ball. We scored off the momentum and it was very cool to see.”
Sounds cliche, but it really is a team sport.