BYU has several question marks on defense this year, but this position isn’t one of them
With standouts Keenan Pili, Payton Wilgar and Max Tooley returning, Cougars are loaded at linebacker for new LBs coach Kevin Clune
It will be fun to keep an eye on the BYU football team’s defense this year, seeing as how the Cougars are relatively inexperienced at a couple of positions and downright loaded at others.
Linebacker is one of those loaded positions, along with cornerback.
New linebackers coach Kevin Clune predicted that last spring after taking over the unit — former LBs coach Ed Lamb moved back to coach the safeties — saying the group reminded him of some of the top LB crews he’s been around in more than 25 years in college football.
Recently completed preseason training camp did nothing to change Clune’s mind.
“I inherited a solid, deep group of guys who take care of business on the field, and off the field. I have just been blessed. Walking into the linebackers room, I have got 12 guys that I can count on.” — BYU linebackers coach Kevin Clune
“I inherited a solid, deep group of guys who take care of business on the field, and off the field,” Clune said after the second scrimmage of camp on Aug. 21. “I have just been blessed. Walking into the linebackers room, I have got 12 guys that I can count on.”
Former linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa, who is joining the defensive ends this season, said the best word to describe the unit he left is “deep.”
“They are going to be awesome,” he said.
Ultimate leader and glue guy Isaiah Kaufusi moved on to the NFL — where he is trying to stay on with the Indianapolis Colts — but the remainder of the linebacking corps returns, guys such as sophomores Keenan Pili, Max Tooley and Payton Wilgar.
Those three were key parts of a defense last year that gave up only 15.3 points and 317.4 yards per game. The Cougars were No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense and No. 10 in total defense.
BYU’s defense in national rankings in 2020
Scoring defense: No. 4 (15.3 points per game)
Passing defense: No. 22 (197.5 yards per game)
Rushing defense: No. 19 (119.9 yards per game)
Total defense: No. 10 (317.4 yards per game)
Team sacks: No. 65 (2.17 sacks per game)
Turnovers gained: No. 25 (18 turnovers forced)
Although this is technically Clune’s first season, he was with the team last year as a defensive consultant.
“I can’t say (BYU is deep) for every position, but I know mine is,” he said. “I love this crew of linebackers. We are working together with the D line and maybe there is not a star, or a name that stands out. That’s why I call them the ‘no name D line,’ because whoever is in there seems to be taking care of business for us, so we can make our plays at linebacker.”
Kaufusi led the Cougars with 83 tackles last year, while Pili was No. 2 with 72, Wilgar No. 3 with 57. Tooley, who would often drop into pass coverage, was No. 5 with 44.
“I look toward Keenan Pili (for leadership),” Clune said. “He is a quiet leader, but always doing the right thing and always in the right place and always working hard.”
Clune said Wilgar, a former walk-on, “is another leader who has been in the fight before and you know what you are to get from him. Every day he is looking to get mentally better.”
The former Utah State, Utah, Weber State and Southern Utah assistant said this is the “most mature” team he has ever been around.”
So if somebody is stepping out of line, those guys will handle it before we might even see it as coaches,” Clune said. “We got tremendous kids here and it is a pleasure to work with kids like that.”
If there is a knock on this overall group of LBs, it might be that beyond the three primary starters, there aren’t a lot of guys who have played a lot.
Clune said former Olympus High star Ben Bywater and one-time running back Morgan Pyper had solid camps and have a good chance to make the two-deep chart, which is expected to be released Monday.
“The next crew is probably Josh Wilson (brother of New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson) and Drew Jensen,” Clune said.
Other candidates to see playing time are freshmen Isaac Matua, from Kearns High, and Viliama Tausinga, the former East High star who signed with BYU back in 2018 and served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Tonga.
BYU’s top running backs — Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier — were off-limits to tackling in scrimmages, but Clune says his linebackers got plenty of work tackling the others, both in scrimmages and in practice.
“First of all, this isn’t 1985, where we are going to go out and knock skulls twice a day,” Clune said. “Last week, when we did go live (tackled), I don’t remember a missed tackle, so I am very happy with the progress we have made. … The first games, you don’t know what you are going to get exactly, but I believe 100% these guys are going to be solid in that area and tackling shouldn’t be an issue.”