It seemed like BYU linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa was in on every play that magical night almost a year ago in Annapolis, Maryland.
Playing like a man-possessed against his former team, Tanuvasa recorded a team-high eight tackles, including four solo takedowns and a quarterback hurry, as BYU pounded Navy 55-3 to begin its memorable 11-1 season.
It appeared that BYU had found its next great linebacker.
Turns out, that was as good as the 2020 season would get for the one-time prized Navy recruit from Tigard, Oregon, because, unbeknownst to most fans and reporters, Tanuvasa sustained an ankle injury that night and was barely heard from again as fellow linebackers Max Tooley, Isaiah Kaufusi, Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili became the regulars.
“I was never quite the same,” Tanuvasa told the Deseret News last week. “It didn’t seem serious but it was something that continued to linger throughout the season, and coaches recognized that I wasn’t 100%.”
Tanuvasa fell completely off the depth chart around the middle of October, and finished the season with just 24 tackles. He did have a sack against Coastal Carolina.
“I just wasn’t able to produce as much as I would have wanted to, and guys who were able to produce got the chance to do it, and they did an amazing job,” he said. “But I am back now, feeling totally healthy, and excited to get going.”
This time, it will be at a different position.
The junior put on 10 to 15 pounds during the offseason to get up to 240 and is now considered a defensive end. He plays what BYU calls the OE (outside end) and Jack (rush linebacker) positions, backing up super senior Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua at OE and listed as the starting Jack on the post-spring depth chart.
Tanuvasa said the position switch is just something that happened naturally. It wasn’t just his idea, nor was it just the coaches plan.
“I have always enjoyed pass rushing,” he said. “Hand work (at the line of scrimmage) is something that I have really focused on growing up, with my dad. That naturally happened with one-on-ones with the running backs, doing pass block drills, and doing those against the offensive linemen with those drills.”
The difficult part, he said, was gaining weight over the summer, but still maintaining his speed and explosiveness.
Teammates such as Tyler Batty and Leiataua and coach Kalani Sitake said he’s managed to do it.
“Pepe was kind of a tweener where we were trying to make him a linebacker and then trying to make him a D end and he just kinda didn’t fit the system,” Sitake said. “I give a lot of credit to (the defensive coaches) for devising a plan where a guy like (Tanuvasa) can actually have a role.”
Sitake said one of the reasons why Preston Hadley was moved from safeties coach to defensive ends coach was to work with unique talents like Tanuvasa and Batty, who is listed as the starter at the defensive end position.
“Pepe is an amazing talent,” Sitake said. “We have a scheme where he can really do well and can play the Jack or OE position and be a stand-up (defender), or he can be a hands-on-the-ground guy if we need him.
“Pepe can do a lot of different things to utilize his skill set,” Sitake continued. “Rather than have him lose weight to play linebacker or gain a lot of weight to be a D end, we are devising schemes where guys like him can have a home.”
Tanuvasa had a productive first season at Navy, making 32 tackles in 13 games, and he loved playing for coach Ken Niumatalolo, but he’s happy he made the transfer. He’s on track to graduate next year, having been readied for BYU’s stringent academic requirements from his time at the Naval Academy.
“It has been great,” he said. “First of all, I loved my time at Navy. And I have loved my time here at BYU. I think they are both great programs.”
Tanuvasa said meeting and marrying his wife, former Utah Valley University volleyball player Kazna Tarawhiti (daughter of former BYU rugby coach Wayne Tarawhiti) has made the transition easier.
“She has been instrumental in my success,” Tanuvasa said. “She’s been my rock throughout this whole process and my time here at BYU. I really attribute all my success to her. Everything I do, really, is because of her. I am so grateful for her.”
Tanuvasa’s roommate, BYU defensive end Alema Pilimai, married Kazna’s roommate and then the newlyweds set up their roommates.
“They connected us, and the rest is history,” Tanuvasa said.