Linebacker should be a position of strength for the 2021 Cougars. Other defensive positions, not so much
With veterans Max Tooley, Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili returning, the Cougars will continue their reputation as a linebacker factory even as Isaiah Kaufusi and Kavika Fonua move on
Even after grabbing the Nacua brothers — Utah’s Samson and Washington’s Puka — out of the transfer portal to significantly upgrade their receivers group, BYU coaches are still looking for another player or two to bolster a few thin positions.
In particular, when looking at the defense, they need some help at safety and cornerback and could really, really use a standout rush defensive end although young players such as Tyler Batty and Hunter Greer have shown promise.
“We will take great players everywhere,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said when camp concluded March 26, noting that when the NCAA grants one-time transfers without penalty, as it did this week, the floodgates will open wide.
“The entire defense was really able to come together in spring ball. We have very few seniors on our defensive roster, so it was a matter of getting the young guys involved, kinda figuring it out together, and getting a new coach (Kevin Clune) in the mix. We tried to bond together as a team, as a defense, and I think we did.” — BYU linebacker Max Tooley
“I think we are always going to be looking for ways to improve, and sometimes that means adding players,” Sitake continued. “That is always going to be a big part of what we do as a program. We are always looking for good kids that are committed to the mission of the school and (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and what this team is about.”
Wednesday night, the Cougars got a commitment from Oregon State cornerback Kaleb Hayes, who has been in the transfer portal since January, according to sportsillustrated.com’s BYU page. He has two years of eligibility remaining and should add depth to a position that became thin when freshman Micah Harper sustained a major injury during spring camp.
One position the Cougars don’t need a lot of help at is linebacker, Sitake said throughout spring camp. He has called it BYU’s deepest, strongest and “most settled” position group.
Rising third-year linebacker Max Tooley is a big reason why. Tooley was BYU’s fourth-leading tackler in its 49-23 win over Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl, finishing with six takedowns, two quarterback hurries and a tackle for loss.
“Max just keeps getting better,” Sitake said midway through camp. “He’s got great instincts and he can do a lot for us. He’s very versatile.”
Tooley was looked at as a safety last spring before camp was ended after five practices, but he was listed as the starting “jack” linebacker in the 2020 season opener against Navy and held on to the spot the entire year. He finished with 44 tackles, fifth-most on the team.
Tooley also had an interception, broke up a pass and blocked a kick.
Suffice it to say the Bountiful High product has found a home at the jack linebacker spot.
“Everyone always has their goals,” Tooley said on March 26. “You want to start, and make the most impact. I also want to keep being a contributor on special teams. Obviously I want to make plays on defense, too, just continue to fly to the ball.”
Tooley said the linebackers are happy to be the strength of the defense, even though the unit lost one of the best to ever don the blue and white — leading tackler Isaiah Kaufusi (83) — as well as hybrid LB/DB Kavika Fonua.
“The entire defense was really able to come together in spring ball,” Tooley said. “We have very few seniors on our defensive roster, so it was a matter of getting the young guys involved, kinda figuring it out together, and getting a new coach (Kevin Clune) in the mix. We tried to bond together as a team, as a defense, and I think we did.”
Although it probably plays more of a 4-3 defensive front than a 3-4, BYU generally lists four linebackers on its depth chart: Jack, Mike, Rover and Flash.
Third-year player Keenan Pili will almost certainly be the starter at Mike, while third-year player Payton Wilgar should be the starter at Flash. Another third-year player, Drew Jensen, should be the starter at Rover when defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki puts the Cougars in a 3-4 alignment.
Despite missing a couple games with an injury, Pili was the second-leading tackler with 72. Wilgar was the third with 57.
“Last year, we kinda developed a strong culture,” Tooley said. “We all believed in each other. That was obviously a really big reason why we had success last year, and I think what coach Kalani and everybody is trying to do is take what we built last year and build upon that for this coming year.”
Navy transfer Pepe Tanuvasa played some Jack linebacker last year, but is getting a shot at rush defensive end, new defensive ends coach Preston Hadley said last month.
Rounding out the depth chart at linebacker (without the benefit of having watched any spring practices) it appears that redshirt sophomore Ben Bywater, out of Olympus High, is going to be Tooley’s backup at Jack.
Part of that maturity is the willingness to change positions for the good of the team, as Tooley and others have done throughout their careers. Sitake’s speciality is putting players in the right positions to succeed — at BYU and in the NFL.
Sophomore Josh Wilson, brother of NFL-bound quarterback Zach Wilson, “made a lot of improvement,” in spring camp, Sitake said, and figures to be Pili’s backup at Mike. Josh Wilson isn’t as tall as his brother, but he’s quite a bit sturdier.
Bywater can also play Flash, while Pili can also play Rover in addition to Mike.
“Honestly, I was just getting comfortable, trying to figure everything out,” Josh Wilson said of his freshman season. “It was awesome because I got to play a lot (during blowouts). I got to kinda figure things out. I got to get a good feel for college football. It was good. I learned a lot. Things weren’t perfect, but that is how you grow. It was a good experience and I am glad it went that way.”
Wilson said the linebackers are learning a lot from Clune, a 30-year coaching veteran.
“He is awesome,” Wilson said. “He is definitely a goofball. He is always messing around with us and he has created a good relationship with us. He’s a good coach. He is smart. He is huge on watching film and being a smart football player.”