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Is this the year BYU finally produces a formidable pass rush?

The Cougars are altering their defense slightly to get more sacks and pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Will the changes pay off?

Tyler Batty is one of BYU’s young, up-and-coming defensive ends hoping to give the Cougars a better pass rush in 2021.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Batty is one of BYU’s young, up-and-coming defensive ends hoping to give the Cougars a better pass rush in 2021.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

Reports of the demise of BYU’s defensive line have been greatly exaggerated.

That’s the headline guys such as defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, defensive ends Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua and Tyler Batty and defensive tackles Lorenzo Fauatea and Atunaisa Mahe hope to be reading in a couple of months.

Heck, if they are reading that at this time next month, after the Cougars are finished playing Arizona on Sept. 4, Utah on Sept. 11 and Arizona State on Sept. 18, they will be thrilled.

For BYU’s defense in 2021, this is probably the most pressing question of all: How will this defensive line that is replacing standouts Khyiris Tonga, Bracken El Bakri and Zac Dawe stack up?

Whether this newish group can stop the run and put some pressure on opposing quarterbacks could very well determine whether the Cougars are successful this season, or not.

Throughout preseason training camp, which will end the middle of this week and see BYU transition into game-week mode and pinpoint preparations to face the Wildcats in Sin City, the aforementioned players, Tuiaki and even head coach Kalani Sitake have assured reporters that the D line will be stout enough to handle a killer schedule, especially in September.

We will see.

Media members were not allowed to view either of the Cougars’ two scrimmages at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but most reports leaked out by family members and the like who did watch the first scrimmage were favorable for the defensive line. Of course, star running backs Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier were held out when tackling was allowed and the quarterbacks were off-limits to tackling, as they have been all camp.

Tuiaki was asked last Tuesday how confident he was in the defense through two weeks of camp.

“Pretty confident,” he said.

Pressed for more details on how the defense looked in the first scrimmage, the coordinator said he was “certainly happy with the way things went,” but added that there are always going to be areas where improvement is needed.

“We are starting to see the depth really develop,” he said.

Assistant head coach Ed Lamb, who is back coaching the safeties this year after overseeing the linebackers the past couple of seasons, said he was “impressed with the stout level of play up front by our defensive line. We have great depth at the tackle position and some guys that have really helped that.”

Lamb said having Mahe back from a career-threatening blood clot issue in his brain known as venous thrombosis that kept him off the field all of 2020 “has helped a ton.” He also said converted offensive lineman Caden Haws “has developed himself into a really stout player up the middle,” and said walk-on freshman Joshua Singh out of Orem High played himself into the conversation for a rotation spot.

Tuiaki said junior Earl Tuioti-Mariner, redshirt sophomore Gabe Summers, Fauatea (back from a foot injury) and freshman walk-on Blake Mangelson also had good scrimmages and/are having good camps.

Freshmen Josh Larsen, John Nelson and Jacob Palo will contribute in the middle with a little more seasoning, he said.

“We feel good about the personnel,” Tuiaki said. “We have a lot of big bodies in there. I think they are understanding the scheme and playing a little bit better. We are playing against what I think is a really good O line, day in and day out. So it is making our young guys grow up fast, which we need.”

Speaking after the first week of camp, Fauatea assured fans the defensive tackles would be fine.

“We have depth at every position,” he said. “Everybody has improved a lot.”

Regarding the outside guys — Leiataua, Batty, Fisher Jackson, new DE Pepe Tanuvasa, walk-on Hunter Greer and oft-injured Alden Tofa and Alema Pilimai — Tuiaki has acknowledged they are young and relatively inexperienced outside of Leiataua and Batty, who was sensational the first month of the season last year before getting injured.

“I feel good about having Batty back,” Tuiaki said. “He is playing at a high level right now. And then Lopa coming back (for a fifth season) should help us. … We are a little bit younger at the D end spot, but overall, just as a front, I feel pretty good about us. We have a lot of guys at the edges that don’t have a lot of experience.”

To remedy that situation and to give Tuiaki more time to be a coordinator, Sitake moved safeties coach Preston Hadley to defensive ends coach when Kevin Clune was hired to be linebackers coach after Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos left for Baylor. Tuiaki still oversees the defensive tackles.

Sitake said Hadley is thriving in his new role.

“Preston has done an amazing job. He is just a ball coach, so it doesn’t really matter what position you give him, he will flourish in it,” Sitake said. “We have got a lot of good bodies, guys that we are going to depend on to play, guys we are going to need to play. And coach Hadley has done a really good job, just taking pride and understanding, learning, putting in the extra time it takes to develop those guys.”

Job 1 for Hadley: Develop a better pass rush. Remember when Tuiaki and Sitake helped turn the University of Utah’s defense into Sack Lake City? A lot of Utah County denizens would like to see that kind of aggressiveness and disruption move 48 miles south.

The aforementioned Tanuvasa has moved from LB to the Jack/opposite end position because he’s demonstrated some excellent pass-rushing prowess in practices. Batty said the sacks will come — even when BYU drops eight and rushes only three.

“We are sitting pretty solid,” Batty said. “We have enough guys that returned and have played in games to be good. We need to get guys some experience. We have a lot of young guys — that is well known.”

Batty said all the criticisms, worries and questions about the defensive line are serving to motivate the entire unit in camp.

“We are all taking it very personally, especially the guys who were here last year and played alongside Khyiris and Zac and Bracken. Those are big shoes to fill, but we will be ready when the time comes.”