PROVO — Massive BYU defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga likes to tell people how he lost 35 pounds over the summer by lifting weights, running before and after practice and exercising more than he ever has in his life.

Then the real reason comes out.

“I stopped eating at McDonald’s,” the 6-foot-4, 320-pound mountain of a man from West Valley City’s Granger High says with a sheepish laugh. “That’s what did it.”

If Tonga continues to play the way he’s been playing this season, he’s going to be wealthy enough to buy his own fast-food franchise. He simply made life miserable for USC center Brett Neilon last Saturday in the Cougars’ 30-27 overtime win, often bull-rushing the former four-star prep All-American into the lap of Trojans’ true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis.

Through three games, Tonga has 10 tackles, a sack and two pass deflections at the line of scrimmage. He’s made two tackles for loss and is generally considered the Cougars’ best defensive player along with cornerback Dayan Ghanwoloku.

Tonga flung Slovis like a rag doll on one play that went viral because the teenager looked woozy and disoriented as he made his way back to the huddle.

“The coaches told me last year if I ever wanted to get in the league (NFL), dropping weight is what I would have to do,” Tonga said. “I took it to heart.”

Tonga is a junior in eligibility, but he reiterated to the Deseret News on Tuesday that this will quite likely be his last year at BYU. Barring an injury or something unexpected, he will declare for the NFL draft next April.

“Yeah, that is still my mentality, just to leave after this year,” he said. “But I am going to take it game by game and continue to just do my best, whether it is me taking 40-plus plays, or taking 20-plus plays. I will do whatever it takes. I will continue to work on my craft and see how it turns out.”

Tonga burst onto the scene in 2017 against LSU and has been wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines seemingly ever since. After a phenomenal performance at No. 6 Wisconsin last year, calls and text messages from agents started pouring in. He tries to ignore them.

More on BYU DT Khyiris Tonga

• Granger High product committed to Utah, but changed his mind and signed with BYU after coach Kalani Sitake became head coach

• Served a two-year mission to Wichita, Kansas, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

• Started in eight games last year and made 30 tackles, including 4.5 for loss

“I always tell them to talk to my parents about that,” he said. “I get a lot of text messages saying, ‘hey, come train with us after the season,’ or, ‘hey, we would love to have you (sign) with us after the season.’ But I just put that aside and continue to worry about the season.”

BYU defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki said Tonga has unlimited potential and is one of the best he’s ever coached.

“He’s a great player,” Tuiaki said. “I don’t know where (he ranks). Time will tell where he ends up, as far as his future. But he has a lot of ability, that’s for sure.”

Head coach Kalani Sitake got emotional when appearing with Tonga and talking about the phenom’s journey to BYU on his coaches show Tuesday night.

“He’s an amazing young man, from a wonderful family,” Sitake said. “His teammates absolutely love him.”

BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (95) blocks a pass by USC quarterback Kedon Slovis in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.
Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (95) blocks a pass by USC Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sitake said “you see this nasty young man” on the field, but off it Tonga is as respectful and humble as anyone he knows.

“He is made to serve others,” Sitake said.

How Tonga got to BYU is well-documented. He committed to the University of Utah while he was at Granger High, but changed his mind on his mission to Wichita, Kansas, because Sitake had moved to BYU from Oregon State and he wanted to follow the family friend.

Tonga is now the big man on campus, literally and figuratively. He’s not quite as recognizable as star quarterback Zach Wilson, but he’s getting there.

“I am still the same guy,” he said when asked how his life has changed with all the notoriety he receives. “I still have to do my homework like everyone else. … I get called the wrong name, but it is cool. I just continue to work hard.”

As fellow defensive tackle Lorenzo Fauatea said Monday, Washington’s offensive line might be the best the Cougars will face this season when they tangle with the Huskies on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“We are just pumped up as a team, especially the players who have been here. We know last year was a heartbreaking loss,” Tonga said. “They dominated us on both sides of the ball, in all three phases. I think it is an opportunity for us to come out at home and (get payback). It should be crazy.”

A victory might even be worthy of a trip to McDonald’s.

• . • . •

Cougars on the air

No. 22 Washington (2-1) at BYU (2-1)

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (MDT)


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM