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Dick Harmon: Why BYU coach Kalani Sitake sees more Cougars being drafted in the years to come

PROVO — Sione Takitaki’s NFL stock has been climbing for weeks, while Corbin Kaufusi’s loyalty and devotion to his teammates may have hurt his early draft stock.

This is the storyline for BYU as the NFL draft kicks off Thursday.

“I’m excited for Sione. Ever since I came here I’ve seen a lot of growth in that young man,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “The fans have seen it. As for the NFL, we saw the same thing in Jamaal Williams and even Taysom Hill when they got a chance to play in the NFL.”

Sitake wants the Cougar program to produce more NFL draftees and believes that will happen in seasons to come.

“What's great about BYU is a lot of the alumni come back and train again with our team and train with our weight-room staff. So they are connected to our team and they give a lot of guidance and advice to our guys on what to do and expect. We are going to have more players in the NFL, the numbers will rise very soon.”

Takitaki and Kaufusi are the Cougar seniors most likely to be drafted this week. Candidates for the 2020 draft include linebacker-defensive back Zayne Anderson, tight end Matt Bushman and defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga.

Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Sione Takitaki works out for NFL scouts during Pro Day in Provo on Friday, March 29, 2019.
Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Sione Takitaki works out for NFL scouts during Pro Day in Provo on Friday, March 29, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred

Sitake said Takitaki took advantage of his experience playing numerous positions for the Cougars. His time playing outside linebacker, middle linebacker and defensive end have taught him a lot about the game. While he is undersized as a defensive end, Takitaki would be adequate as an outside backer. Sitake has told NFL scouts his true position should be a middle linebacker.

Takitaki, the leading tackler during last year's bowl season, has worked out and interviewed with six of the 32 NFL teams since his pro day.

Sitake said Kaufusi refused to abandon his team at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Utah and it cost him an NFL combine and much-needed evaluation by delaying surgery.

“Corbin would probably have a better opportunity to be drafted had he not played in that Utah game," Sitake said. "He barely missed that window in postseason recovery from operations. That shows you just what kind of kid he is. People don’t realize how much pain he was in. We sat down weeks before that game and told him the chances of hurting himself more were not there, but if he played instead of undergoing surgery, it would cost him a few weeks of recovery time for the NFL.

"He kept saying he didn’t care," Sitake continued. "We told him if he did, he would have to practice and earn his spot. He did. And he played against Utah and gave everything he had. He hurt every step he took and people don’t know he refused to take pain medication. If you watch that game, watch him, see what he did.

“If you're in the NFL, why wouldn’t you take a chance with a guy like that? Someone will and they’ll be the smartest person out there.”

Sitake believes more NFL draftees will come out of BYU in the future because he sees talent and abilities. NFL scouts asked him if Fred Warner could play middle linebacker and he said he could. Warner started as a rookie linebacker and ended up one of the top tacklers for the 49ers. His prediction for Takitaki is the same.

Utah Utes quarterback Jason Shelley (15) falls to the ground as Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi (90) and linebacker Sione Takitaki (16) rush in as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018
Utah Utes quarterback Jason Shelley (15) falls to the ground as Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi (90) and Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Sione Takitaki (16) rush in as BYU and Utah play at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

So, there’s a little Sitake cred working there and he has a vibe about Kaufusi.

“That kid has a heart that is unbelievable," he said. "You can't define it as just playing hard. He's got a will to compete and he'll be ready to play this year. And he will shock a lot of people. They just need to give him a chance. And he knows it.

"Whether he gets drafted or goes to the league as a free agent, he's going to be in the NFL. He's too big and too athletic not to. He made plays every time he was on the field. He can catch the ball and run, too.

“He has tons of film against great quarterbacks and against really good teams. He’s done a lot of things playing different positions, dropping in coverage, play on and off the line and in a three- and four-man front. He is very, very versatile for a 6-foot-9 person with a wingspan and athleticism. He blocked so many field goals.”

Somebody is going to take a chance on Kaufusi, not just because of his talent but because they see he is willing to put his team ahead of his future.

“Who wouldn’t want that on their team?”

Sitake said offensive tackle Austin Hoyt is a candidate that could play at the next level — he has the size and skills — but he has decided to turn down football and focus on a different career.

“That’s definitely his choice," Sitake said. "He and his wife prayed about it, thought about it.”

In the future, Sitake believes BYU’s NFL draftees will increase because he is going to do everything he can to keep them healthy and prepare properly.

There is a challenge to it, however. Because BYU has so many players who have spent time on missions, he has to focus on their return to physical play in a proper time frame. Nobody, not even Utah, Utah State or Stanford, who all have players return from mission service, do so with the same numbers as BYU.

Sitake is the first Tongan Division I head football coach and he is also the first head football coach at BYU to have served a two-year mission as a player.

“I have to use that experience to help these guys. I am not going to jeopardize their career by playing them when they are not ready and we have young guys in our program.”

Sitake believes many just off missions will be drafted someday, but he will be patient in bringing them along.

Sitake has also felt the weight of greater introspection and responsibility for students the past two weeks when he was called to serve as a counselor in a campus bishopric for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The offseason goes fast for college head football coaches and Sitake’s, it seems, will go even faster starting with monitoring the NFL draft.