Prior to the South Florida season opener, when mentioning the BYU linebackers, Max Tooley’s name was always brought up fourth behind Keenan Pili, Payton Wilgar and the 2021 leading tackler Ben Bywater.
After six games, the order of conversation has surprisingly changed. It’s now Tooley — and then the others. It’s not that Pili, Wilgar and Bywater are underperforming, it’s that Tooley has been that good.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an angry person outside of football, but on the field, it’s been a different mindset for me.” — BYU linebacker Max Tooley
No longer is the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Bountiful High product considered an off-to-the-side linebacker. Tooley has played his way onto the medal stand and that’s where he intends to stay.
“I’m just making the most of the opportunities I’ve been given,” Tooley said. “I’ve tried to be a playmaker my whole time at BYU. I’ve been limited in certain ways and in certain aspects of my game, but I feel this year has been a culmination of everything I have put into this sport and this program.”
Seeing the light
It took time, but Tooley has seen the light. The gifted, but not always disciplined playmaker, has turned his game around and created a leadership role on the defense.
“It’s been a little bit of honing the aggression and physicality with football IQ and being able to study up on teams and pick up on tendencies,” he said. As a result, a wiser Tooley is turning heads and making plays with his power and his prowess.
Against South Florida, just prior to his pick-six in the first quarter, Tooley saw the Bulls were overloaded to the field side. “As soon as they sent my guy out on the passing route and once the quarterback committed, I said, ‘Yeah, I need to jump this ball,’” he said.
Tooley cashed in for a second pick-six in the first quarter against Utah State.
“I was trying to read the quarterback’s eyes and I was in the right spot,” he said. Tooley returned the interception 34 yards for a touchdown.
Last week against Notre Dame, and in great need of a pick-me-up, Tooley delivered again by being where he was supposed to be — when he was supposed to be there. Wilgar tipped the quarterback’s pass and Tooley pulled it in for fourth-quarter interception.
“They were throwing to No. 87 (Michael Mayer) all night,” he said. “I learned from my mistakes from earlier in the game and was in the right position to make a play on the tip.”
Leader of the band
Tooley isn’t perfect, but he is the leader of the band on defense, both in unassisted tackles (22) and interceptions (3), despite missing the Wyoming game with an injury. He also leads all FBS linebackers with a pair of pick-sixes.
Arkansas (3-3) comes to Provo Saturday ranked No. 21 in offensive tempo — meaning they like to go fast. In addition, the Razorbacks are running the football more than anyone else with the exception of Army, Navy and Air Force. The Hogs have the potential to be a nightmare.
“We have to make adjustments earlier and play more stout at all levels,” Tooley said. “Whether it’s the defensive line causing a disruption in the run game, or us (linebackers) filling holes and completing tackles and the safeties and corners wrapping up on the back end — it’s just a matter of doing what we know we have to do to stop them.”
Getting off the field on third downs remains priority No. 1 for the defense. The Irish converted 11 of 16 last week in Las Vegas. Notre Dame’s success kept Tooley and company on the field and Jaren Hall and the BYU offense off of it.
Notre Dame controlled the ball for 73 plays and rushed 45 times for 234 yards. Tooley led the Cougars with 13 tackles, including seven solo stops, and despite the 21-minute disparity in time of possession, his interception handed the ball back to the offense with a chance to win the game.
Still, Tooley knows a better start would have allowed for a better ending.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” he said of BYU’s sluggishness out of the locker room. “We all know what we have to do. We know the mission involved. It’s a matter of getting our minds right from the get-go, myself included.”
Living the dream
Tooley has been delivering big hits his whole life.
“It’s a weird thing to think about. In life, you don’t just hit people, but you get that free pass in football on every play,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m an angry person outside of football, but on the field, it’s been a different mindset for me.”
Playing on the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium is also a dream that Tooley gets to live out in real life.
More on Tooley
You can see Dave McCann’s interview with Max Tooley Saturday at 11:30 a.m. on “BYU Sports Nation GameDay” on BYUtv.
“I remember writing in my journal about playing for BYU when I was in the third grade,” he said. “It has lived up to every expectation I had while growing up. The fans are crazy. The games are crazy, and with these big teams coming in — there’s nothing more than I could have hoped for.”
Tooley is no longer an “off-to-the-side” linebacker at BYU. He is firmly planted on the medal stand and is seeking a golden performance on Saturday to keep him there.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.