One obviously beefed-up position in BYU’s spring drills is the defensive line.
They’re older, seasoned, a little stronger, deeper and have added speed.
If that unit proves to be effective in 2022, it will go a long way to help coach Kalani Sitake continue a streak of wins, even with a schedule that includes Arkansas and Notre Dame.
In fact, it is critical BYU get bigger and deeper in the trenches, especially on defense.
Everyone but Uriah Leiataua returns from a very young unit and those who are on the roster are bigger and stronger, according to conditioning room reports.
But what about the guys who are new — like four-star 2021 recruit Logan Fano or 2019 signees Bruce Mitchell, and Brooks Maile? What about freshman four-star recruit Aisea Moa, who graduated early from high school and enrolled in January?
Fano, the highest-ranked recruit in last year’s crop, is already turning heads as a pass rusher.
The Cougars defensive line is seeing a rotation right now of Tyler Batty, Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Josh Larsen, John Nelson, Gabe Summers, Caden Haws, and Blake Mangelson. All were fairly young D-linemen a year ago, a group that helped win five games against Pac-12 competition.
Grayshirting is perfect for players who just returned from missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and need time to return to shape. They do not practice but wait a semester when their scholarship kicks in for school and membership on the team with full benefits and participation in practice.
A guy in that situation is grayshirt defensive lineman Bruce Mitchell, who signed with BYU in 2019 with a scholarship offer. When he returned from church service to Seattle in July, the plan called for him to sit out the year, but be enrolled in school.
I asked to talk to Mitchell this week and he was a little surprised he was requested to meet for a media interview with so many returning veteran players available.
Well, grayshirts like Mitchell, could be the next Gabe Summers or Tyler Batty if pressed into action. Or they could contribute to the scout team. Last year proved BYU could use more depth to cover those who are injured for a game or two — or for the season.
Mitchell is 6-foot-4 and weighs 290 pounds. He is one of those “older” BYU freshmen, 21-plus years of age and just starting his college career.
Mitchell lost 50 pounds while serving as a missionary. The past seven months he has put it all back on, plus he is stronger than he’s ever been. “I’m now getting used to carrying that weight. So far, knock on wood, I haven’t been injured because of it,” said Mitchell.
So, what are his goals for spring practice?
“Right now, I’m just trying to learn the playbook. I played at South Summit, a 2A high school. We had about three defensive calls, three defensive fronts, and each of them had like seven calls. I’m just trying to learn the playbook right now.
“In high school, I was just bigger, faster, stronger than everybody but the game changed a lot. So I’m trying to learn the techniques, learn the plays and get acclimated to everything.”
BYU coaches saw Mitchell at one of their football camps when he was in high school and offered him a scholarship. “I am so grateful they did, I committed right then. There’s no doubt my size had a lot to do with it.”
Mitchell praised the leadership he has seen among the returning defensive linemen who have helped younger players learn the system and techniques. “We return a lot of guys. I think we only lost one guy. A lot of guys have stepped in to help us young guys.”
Mitchell believes BYU will be very good and the defensive line will have an impact. “The coaches have said a lot about it. We have some guys who are moving a lot of weight in the weight room.”
Mitchell said his lift numbers have been in the middle of the pack among the D-linemen but they have increased since January when he began school. “I’m definitely the strongest I’ve ever been, for sure. When I left for my mission I was 295 and then got down to 250. I’ve got back to about 290 right now which is a big step since July.”
Mitchell has become close friends with Maile, who is kind of in the same situation on the team. They’ve hung out the past year, played a lot of Xbox in the players lounge, and worked alongside one another.
Both are guys who had no role or impact on the 10-win team from the 2021 season.
Mitchell said it was somewhat discouraging to come out and undergo the first two weeks of spring ball when he’d been away from football for so long.
“It was definitely hard last week. There’s a little discouragement just because you’re making mistakes on assignments. But I just have to remember if I don’t get it, it’s only been six days playing football again. Everybody here is better than anybody I ever faced in my division of high school football, so I’ve just got to keep that in mind. But it was kind of discouraging the first couple of days.”
Mitchell is looking forward to growing up in the program with Maile and having parallel careers supporting one another.
Another assist will come from his No. 1 priority in life right now, his wife of three months, BYU track athlete Sadie Sargent, a member of the top-ranked cross-country team.
“I love my wife,” said Mitchell, when asked to provide one thing people should know about him. “She is the highest priority in my life.”
That’s a great answer.