PROVO — In recent years, BYU’s defense has been shouldering a heavy load.
Amid changes at the quarterback position, changes in the offensive coaching staff and changes in the offensive scheme, the Cougar offense has sputtered and struggled to find itself, putting a lot of pressure on the defense.
Could this be the year that the BYU offense, led by sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson, takes pressure off the defense?
One of the buzzwords during the offseason in regard to the offense is explosiveness. BYU is looking to score points in bunches this season.
“It’s going to be a more explosive team,” said tight end Matt Bushman. “People should get pretty excited about what our offense is going to bring this year.”
“There’s explosive potential,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “I can never have enough explosiveness.”
Said tight ends coach Steve Clark, “Zach’s not afraid to throw it down the field. That’s why we’ve been more explosive.”
The idea of playing with a prolific offense is music to the ears of the defense.
“It does take pressure off,” said safety Austin Lee. “When they make a big-time play, you see the whole sideline cheer it. It’s fun to see.”
The past three years, the Cougars have averaged 27.2, 17.1 and 29.5 points per game. Can BYU average more than 30 points a game for the first time since 2015?
Here’s an overview of the BYU offense, defense and special teams.
One of the reasons for optimism this season is the fact that offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, in his second season, has instilled a culture and established an identity for BYU’s offense.
Wilson started the final seven games of the 2019 season as a true freshman and showcased his impressive throwing and running ability. He capped the season by completing 18 of 18 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-18 win over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Wilson underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, but despite the fact he missed spring practices and didn’t start throwing again until June, Cougar coaches say he’s improved.
“I thought the time off would make him a little bit rusty,” said quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick. “But if anything, mentally, he’s more sharp than ever. He’s a fast decision-maker and he gets the ball out quick and really runs our team.”
Protecting Wilson is an experienced offensive line that returns three starters from last season — center James Empey, right guard Tristen Hoge and left tackle Brady Christensen — with Chandon Herring, Harris LaChance, Thomas Shoaf, Kieffer Longson and Keanu Saleapaga vying for playing time and providing depth.
Wilson also has a lot of weapons at his disposal, including tight ends Matt Bushman and Moroni Laulu-Pututau; as well as receivers Aleva Hifo, Gunner Romney, Talon Shumway, Micah Simon and Dax Milne. The Cougars will need the receiving corps to take a big step forward to help the offense become more dynamic and productive.
At running back, BYU’s leading rusher last season, Lopini Katoa, returns after running 76 times for 423 yards and eight touchdowns. The Cougars improved their depth at that position considerably during the offseason with the addition of graduate transfers Ty’Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa.
As an offense, BYU is looking to improve on third down conversions and success in the red zone.
”An area of improvement we’ve talked about is being able to finish those close games. We were a couple of plays away from eight or nine wins,” Roderick said. “We were also a couple of plays away from four or five wins. We’ve been talking a lot about the little things it takes to close out a close game — getting a touchdown in the red zone instead of a field goal.”
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki has overseen a top 25 defense nationally in two of the last three seasons and he’s counting on similar results this year.
But BYU’s two top defensive players last season, linebacker Sione Takitaki and defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi, have moved on the NFL.
That’s a big void to fill, but the Cougars are optimistic about the return of defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga, who recorded 4.5 sacks last season; linebackers Zayne Anderson, who received a medical redshirt after playing four games last season, and Isaiah Kaufusi, who made a big impact late in the season; and cornerback Dayan Ghanwoloku and safety Austin Lee.
One of the biggest question marks is at middle linebacker, where Takitaki played last season. Freshmen Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili and Jackson Kaufusi and junior Kavika Fonua have been battling for that job.
The defensive line should see a number of players contributing, including Zac Dawe, Devin Kaufusi, Trajan Pili, Bracken El-Bakri, Atunaisa Mahe, Lorenzo Fauatea and Earl Tuioti-Mariner.
“We are deep. It’s nice because everyone’s pushing each other,” Dawe said of the D-line. “At the same time, we’re all helping each other. We’re at least three deep.”
At the other cornerback position, Isaiah Herron, D’Angelo Mandell and Dimitri Gallow are fighting for the starting job while Sawyer Powell and Malik Moore are being considered at the other safety spot.
The success of BYU’s defense could depend on its ability to put pressure on the quarterback, be disruptive and force turnovers.
“I think we’ll be dominant. As a unit, we’ll play together and we have a lot of team chemistry,” Anderson said. “I trust those guys and I have confidence in them. We’re young but I think we’ll be a really good defense this year.”
A key development during fall camp was redshirt freshman Jake Oldroyd’s emergence as the possible starting placekicker and punter for BYU this season.
“I feel that Jake is kicking it the best in the punting spot and the field goal spot,” said special teams coach Ed Lamb. “But the depth chart changes daily.”
Three years ago as a freshman, Oldroyd booted the game-winning field goal against Arizona in Sitake’s debut game as BYU’s head coach. Oldroyd returned home from a mission during the offseason and he is considerably bigger and stronger than he was as a freshman.
Sophomore Skyler Southam, last year’s starter, booted a game-winning 45-yard field goal in the upset of Wisconsin. He could handle some kickoffs.
“His kickoffs have been amazing. He can put it in the back of the end zone, although that’s something we don’t want to use,” Lamb said. “We want to be a kickoff team that goes down and covers, and takes some risks, but to have that as a tool is tremendous.”
Meanwhile, Danny Jones, a rugby-style punter, could handle some punting situations.
As far as kick and punt returns, Lamb said Aleva Hifo, Gunner Romney and Dax Milne will all be in the mix, according to Lamb.