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Taking a stab at BYU’s post-spring defensive depth chart for 2022

Cougars’ defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s depth chart is bigger than most because it includes at least 15 positions

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BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar (49) knocks down a pass by Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) as BYU and Utah play.

BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar (49) knocks down a pass by Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Wilgar suffered an injury last season but is expected to be ready when fall camp begins in August.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Any analysis or projection of the BYU football team’s defensive depth chart under seven-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki should begin and end with one simple reminder:

It is larger than most, and continually changing.

Sure, there are the traditional positions such as right cornerback, strong safety and middle linebacker. But there are also hybrid spots like “cinco” and “rover” and “flash” that dot the two-deep chart and bring it to 15 positions. Only 11 guys can play at a time on defense, obviously, but Tuiaki told the Deseret News after the final spring practice on March 31 that his defense will continue to have multiple fronts and include a lot of different packages.

“It’s not a secret,” he said. “If you watch the film, we are a 4-2-5, a 4-3, a 3-4, a 3-3-5, a lot of things. All of our stuff is on film and everybody can see it.”

“We got a lot of the guys who played last year, who were young, but more ready to play by working on technique and fundamentals and tactical football awareness and all that. We got them better and better throughout spring. We are certainly pleased with how it went.” — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki

In 2021, BYU’s defense got off to a great start, but finished on the mediocre side. Injuries to defensive stars Keenan Pili, Chaz Ah You, Payton Wilgar and Max Tooley took their toll, and in some games in November and December four or five walk-ons comprised the starting 11.

The Cougars, who went 6-1 against Power Five foes but finished the year with a 10-3 record, particularly struggled to stop the run, leading to close-call wins over Virginia and USC and a deflating 31-28 loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl.

BYU was 74th in total defense, allowing 388.8 yards per game, and 51st in scoring defense, giving up 24.6 points per game, the worst scoring mark since head coach Kalani Sitake took over and brought Tuiaki with him from Oregon State.

Against the run, the Cougars were 73rd — yielding 4.34 yards per carry and 156.8 yards per game.

The aforementioned players missed most or all of spring camp to recover from injuries and surgeries, but Tuiaki said they remained involved and helped out with coaching and practices. He said the entire defense improved.

“We got a lot of the guys who played last year, who were young, more ready to play by working on technique and fundamentals and tactical football awareness and all that,” he said. “We got them better and better throughout spring. We are certainly pleased with how it went.”

Tuiaki said there are position battles that will go on through summer and fall camp, “which I think is a good thing.”

Developing depth was another point of emphasis, so injuries to top-line players don’t have as much of an impact as they did in 2021.

“It seems like the same thing every year — our concerns are keeping them healthy, mostly,” Tuiaki said. “If we can stay healthy, and the ball bounces the right way, we have a chance to have a pretty special year.”

Since spring camp ended on March 31, coaches have been reviewing film of the 15 practices and working on post-spring depth charts.

Having published our projected post-spring offensive depth chart last week, the Deseret News takes a stab at the defensive depth chart and special teams depth chart here:

Can the defensive line be dominant?

BYU’s defensive line was just OK last year, not a surprise considering standouts Khyiris Tonga, Bracken El Bakri and Zac Dawe moved on from the 2020 line that was one of the better ones in school history. This year, only Uriah Leiataua departs, meaning the group should be fairly solid.

The loss of promising freshman Logan Fano to a knee injury in spring camp will hurt; the addition of freshman Aisea Moa will help, particularly in the pass rush department.

“There have been a couple defensive linemen who have really come along well,” Tuiaki said. “Because I work with the D-line, I see that close up. I am really pleased with their progress. The whole defense, I felt like, got better.”

Projected starters (when the Cougars are in a four-man defensive front) include sophomore Tyler Batty and senior Lorenzo Fauatea at the defensive end spots, sophomore Caden Haws at nose tackle and senior Earl Tuioti-Mariner at defensive tackle. Sophomore Fisher Jackson had a nice spring and could be the top guy at the outside end spot, a position that Moa, a Weber High product, could also be utilized at.

Key backups on the defensive line include senior Alden Tofa, sophomores Blake Mandelson and John Nelson and juniors Gabe Summers and Atunaisa Mahe, who was held out of spring ball due to injury.

Linebackers won’t be a liability

If the aforementioned Pili and Wilgar return to full strength, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t, linebacker will be the defense’s strength again. Wilgar mans what BYU calls the rover position, while Pili is the mike and will lead the team in tackles if all goes according to plan.

Olympus High product Ben Bywater, who did lead the Cougars in tackles last year with 102, is the Deseret News’ projected starter at the will linebacker spot after sliding over and playing the mike a lot last year when Pili went down in the Arizona State game.

“I think everyone is taking it personally upon them to be better,” Bywater said. “So from here on, it is about getting better on our own and in (player-run practices) until we get back with the coaches on Aug. 1.”

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater (33) calls a play after a tackle during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Sept. 4, 2021.

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater (33) calls a play after a tackle during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Tooley was BYU’s second-leading tackler last year, with 68, and should be back playing the flash linebacker position if all goes well. Ah You is also in the running at flash, if he returns from an injury-plagued junior season. Ah You did not participate in spring practices.

Senior Pepe Tanuvasa, the Navy transfer, is back at mike linebacker after playing defensive end last year and will spell Pili when he needs a break. Juniors Tavita Gagnier, Josh Wilson, Jackson Kaufusi and Morgan Pyper provide linebacking depth.

Bywater said Gagnier, who is coming off multiple career-threatening injuries, will turn some heads this fall. He also mentioned freshman returned missionary Michael Daley as another linebacker to keep an eye on.

Hybrids are here to stay

BYU’s defense is often powered by multiple packages, especially when the Cougars rush three and drop eight to slow down spread offenses and confuse young quarterbacks. Those so-called “hybrid positions” are called cinco, nickel.

At cinco, sophomore Javelle Brown and senior Matt Criddle are the best options, while sophomores Jakob Robinson and Caleb Christensen are the nickels. Another quality hybrid defender, Shamon Willis, is taking a medical retirement.

Another hybrid option could be redshirt freshman Micah Harper, who started in 2020 but was injured throughout 2021. Harper has moved from cornerback to safety, but as Sitake says, “We have cornerbacks who can play safety and safeties who can play cornerback.”

Cornerbacks could be the cornerstones

Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford has said the returning group of corners could be one of the best groups he’s had at BYU, and it was bolstered recently when the Cougars landed Vanderbilt sophomore Gabe Jeudy-Lally out of the transfer portal. Jeudy-Lally has starting experience in the SEC and is the type of cover corner the Cougars will need in the Big 12, if not sooner.

Jeudy-Lally will push returning senior Kaleb Hayes at the right corner spot, while senior D’Angelo Mandell is the presumed starter at left corner. Juniors Isaiah Herron and Jacob Boren, who also plays nickel, are also options at cornerback.

Searching for some playmaking safeties

Three-year starting free safety Malik Moore, a senior, anchors the secondary and has improved his leadership skills to the point where he could be elected a team captain, coaches have said. Moore and Robinson led the Cougars in interceptions last year with three picks apiece.

Moore’s backup at free safety coming out of spring appears to be junior Hayden Livingston.

At strong safety, sophomore Ammon Hannemann played well in the spring and could be the starter there. The aforementioned Harper, from Chandler, Arizona, is still learning the spot and could be starting early in the season if his development continues.

“It has been a good spot for him,” Tuiaki said. “With all the young corners that we signed, it will be good. It is a chance to get a good player on the field in different packages.”

Specialists are set

Punter Ryan Rehkow and kicker Jake Oldroyd combine to give BYU one of the best specialist tandems in the country. The three-year starters should vie for postseason honors, if they get enough attempts to qualify.

Oldroyd was 9 of 13 on field goal attempts in 2021, while Rehkow averaged 48.6 yards per punt, on 40 attempts. Redshirt freshmen Justen Smith and Cash Peterman are their backups, respectively. Smith proved to be especially valuable last year because Oldroyd had back issues that limited his appearances.

Sophomores Hobbs Nyberg and Talmage Gunther will handle the punt return duties, while the primary kick returners are running back Miles Davis, defensive back Caleb Christensen and speedster Boren, a junior from Highland High in Salt Lake City.

Austin Riggs and Britton Hogan are back to handle long snapper duties, while Rehkow is a fine holder for his good friend Oldroyd when he’s not blasting punts.


BYU’S projected defense and special teams depth chart, 2022

Defense

Starter — Backup

DE 92 Tyler Batty (So.) — 93 Blake Mangelson (So.)

NT 95 Caden Haws (So.) — 62 Atunaisa Mahe (Jr.)     

DT 91 Earl Tuioti-Mariner (Sr.) — 94 John Nelson (So.)

SE 55 Lorenzo Fauatea (Sr.) — 98 Gabe Summers (Jr.)

OE 53 Fisher Jackson (So.) — 58 Aisea Moa (Fr.)

WILL 2 Ben Bywater (So.) — 13 Jackson Kaufusi (Jr.)       

ROVER 34 Payton Wilgar (Jr.) — 27 Tavita Gagnier (Jr.)

MIKE 41 Keenan Pili (Jr.) — 45 Pepe Tanuvasa (Sr.)

FLASH 31 Max Tooley (Jr.) — 3 Chaz Ah You (Sr.)

CINCO 19 Javelle Brown (So.) — 17 Matt Criddle (Sr.)

NICKEL 0 Jakob Robinson (So.) — 4 Caleb Christensen (So.)

LC 5 D’Angelo Mandell (Sr.) — 11 Isaiah Herron (Jr.)

RC 18 Kaleb Hayes (Sr.) — 13 Gabe Jeudy-Lally (So.)

FS 12 Malik Moore (Sr.) — 28 Hayden Livingston (Jr.)

SS 22 Ammon Hannemann (So.) — 1 Micah Harper (Fr.)


Special teams

Starter — Backup

PK 39 Jake Oldroyd (Jr.) — 37 Justen Smith (Fr.)         

P 24 Ryan Rehkow (So.) — 99 Cash Peterman (Fr.)

KR 19 Miles Davis (Fr.) — 20 Jacob Boren (Jr.)

PR 23 Hobbs Nyberg (So.) — 36 Talmage Gunther (So.)