BYU has some significant holes to fill on the defensive line. Can the Cougars do it?
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki says a rugged early schedule will test BYU’s defensive front, which is thin and inexperienced
Major 2020 contributors and starters Khyiris Tonga, Zac Dawe and Bracken El Bakri are in the NFL, at least for the time being, and rising star Seleti Fevaleaki is in the transfer portal.
In other words, BYU’s defensive line in 2021 figures to be the most inexperienced position group on the team. Of the nine defensive linemen on the depth chart the Cougars finished the season with last year when they pummeled Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl, only five are back.
Is that keeping defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki up at night?
“I sleep pretty well,” Tuiaki said at BYU’s Football Media Day last month in his familiar, laid-back style.
Of course, that was before news broke that Fevaleaki was in the portal. The redshirt freshman returned missionary from Centennial High in Corona, California, appeared in 10 games during BYU’s 11-1 season, making six tackles and a sack (against Navy).
“No question, we are young there (at defensive line). There are a lot of young players that don’t have a lot of playing time that are going to have to step up.” — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.
Still, Tuiaki hinted at the time that his defense could be losing an expected contributor shortly, and Fevaleaki was not on the post-spring depth chart distributed on June 17. Fevaleaki, who was recruited by Tuiaki and head coach Kalani Sitake when they were at Utah and then Oregon State, but followed them to Provo after a church mission to Saint Louis, Missouri, had been in the program since 2017 and was finally beginning to show his potential.
“One of the kids that played for us (last year) and was going to be a really good player may not be with us,” Tuiaki said. “But that is still up in the air, so I don’t want to talk about him.”
Assuming he doesn’t return, Fevaleaki will be missed — especially during a year when BYU’s depth will be tested early. The Cougars open the season on Sept. 4 against Arizona in Las Vegas, then host Utah, Arizona State and South Florida on successive Saturdays before playing at Utah State on Friday, Oct. 1.
October is just as difficult, with Boise State, Baylor, Washington State and Virginia on the docket that month, along with the Aggies.
Stopping the run will be tough against those teams — especially the Utes and Sun Devils — and BYU is nowhere near as equipped to do that as it was last year. There are pass-rushing concerns as well.
“No question, we are young there,” Tuiaki said. “There are a lot of young players that don’t have a lot of playing time that are going to have to step up.”
At least the young guys will get plenty of attention from the coaching staff.
When Sitake added linebackers coach Kevin Clune in February, giving the Cougars a fifth coach on the defensive side of the ball, he moved safeties coach Preston Hadley to defensive ends coach so Tuiaki could focus on the interior defensive linemen when he isn’t coordinating the entire defense.
“We’ve got some talent there, but not a lot of experience,” Hadley said in March. “There’s a lot that goes into being a good pass-rusher.”
Redshirt junior Lorenzo Fauatea and “super senior” Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua are listed as the starting defensive ends on the depth chart.
“If there is anything that is going to keep me up at night, it is that we are young at the safety spot, and thin at the D end spot,” Tuiaki said.
Coaches are thankful that Leiataua, who is 25, chose to return. Leiataua, recruited out of Compton, California, by former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, earned his degree more than a year ago. But a fractured leg cut short his senior season last year, and he decided to use the NCAA’s “extra year” exception due to COVID-19.
“Unfinished business,” is the reason Leiataua gives for coming back. “Personally, I feel like I am a good player, a talented player. I also feel that I have not lived up to those expectations I have. They are no one else’s expectations but my own.”
Leiataua said he will take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) next month in hopes of going to law school if an NFL career doesn’t work out.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Batty is the other pass-rusher on the roster with experience. Batty got off to a sensational start last year with four sacks in his first four games, but an injury derailed his first season in Provo after a church mission to Madrid, Spain.
“We are hoping for a big year from Tyler Batty,” Tuiaki said. “He’s got a lot of talent, if he can stay healthy.”
Batty and long snapper Austin Riggs became the first BYU football players to sign NIL deals last week when they agreed to endorse a company (Balmshot) that makes lip balm and puts it in used shotgun shells.
On the interior, the Cougars will rely on redshirt junior Earl Tuioti-Mariner, former walk-on Gabe Summers, former offensive lineman Caden Haws and Atunaisa Mahe, a redshirt sophomore from West Jordan who battled back from a blood clot issue that threatened his football career.
“They are all on board. They want to do it. They want to be good,” Tuiaki said. “But is always nice to have a team with game experience, and at defensive line we don’t have a lot.”
Other defensive tackles to keep an eye on include Josh Larsen, John Nelson, Alden Tofa and Blake Mangelson.
Defensive ends pushing for a spot in the rotation are Hunter Greer, Kade Pupunu, Alema Pilimai and Fisher Jackson.
“We will be OK,” Tuiaki said. “We got kids who want to be here, and want to work hard and contribute.”