BYU’s young linebackers took their lumps in 2019, should be strength of team in 2020
Only one contributing linebacker from the team that went 7-6 and lost to Hawaii in the bowl game, Austin Kafentzis, graduates this spring, meaning the Cougars have 9-10 experienced players returning at linebacker, most notably Isaiah Kaufusi, Kavika Fonua, Max Tooley and Payton Wilgar
PROVO — Lost in the craziness of the final few minutes of the Hawaii Bowl when BYU gave up the game-winning touchdown with one minute, 17 seconds remaining to fall 38-34 to the Rainbow Warriors was a personal foul penalty called on BYU linebacker Max Tooley for targeting.
The decision, upheld by replay officials, means the rising sophomore must sit out the first half of BYU’s 2020 season opener at Utah in September.
BYU’s starters at linebacker in Hawaii Bowl
- Outside LB: Isaiah Kaufusi, Jr., 6-2, 215
- Flash LB: Austin Kafentzis, Sr., 6-1, 200
- Middle LB: Kavika Fonua, Jr., 6-0, 210
- Inside LB: Payton Wilgar, Fr., 6-3, 235
Also played: Max Tooley, Fr., 6-2, 225; Chaz Ah You, So., 6-2, 2025; Keenan Pili, Fr., 6-3, 225; Drew Jensen, 6-2, 215; Ben Bywater, Fr., 6-3, 215
That’s obviously not optimal for a BYU defense that will rely on the talented Tooley this upcoming season and would like to get off to a good start against the Utes — who have won the last nine rivalry games — but it is not devastating, either. That’s because linebacker, whether the Cougars employ a 3-4 front next season, or a 4-3, will almost certainly be a position of strength.
If the Cougars do go with more of a 4-3 look next year, that fourth player who lines up on the line of scrimmage will likely be a pass-rushing linebacker such as Tooley or Keenan Pili, another rising sophomore in the 225-pound range.
Whatever the case, BYU appears to be loaded with outstanding young linebackers, assuming they all stay around — not a given in this day and age of the transfer portal — next season. The Cougars are scheduled to lose only Austin Kafentzis to graduation.
Kafentzis, who was a safety when the season started, played well at flash linebacker in the bowl game with four tackles and two pass breakups. The effort landed him a spot in the Hula Bowl, an all-star exhibition at Aloha Stadium on Jan. 26.
Meanwhile, no fewer than nine linebackers who made multiple tackles in 2019 return. That’s 10 if you count Tyler Allgeier, who played running back the final few games when injuries decimated that position for the second straight season and was the bowl’s leading rusher with eight carries for 77 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of good ’backers coming back,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said before the bowl game. “We should have a lot of depth and talent there. I’m excited to see those guys continue to get better and see what they can do.”
Unlike last fall camp, when the Cougars were trying to replace contributing linebackers such as Sione Takitaki, Butch Pau’u, Riggs Powell, Adam Pulsipher and Rhett Sandlin, linebackers coach Ed Lamb will welcome back plenty of experience. Most notably, outside LB Isaiah Kaufusi and middle LB Kavika Fonua will be seniors and should be able to anchor the unit, having combined for 143 tackles, four interceptions (two apiece) and eight pass breakups last season.
Fonua led BYU in tackles with 83 and Kaufusi was third, with 60. Senior defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku ranked second, with 62. He has accepted an invitation to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 18.
“I am happy that they have gotten better over the course of the season,” Lamb said in November. “They need to continue to get stronger and more veteran in the way they approach the games and the seasons. I hope that becomes better over time. But for a young group of players, I think they have really been tough-minded.”
Veteran defender Zayne Anderson should also be back, after lingering issues with his shoulder caused him to miss most of the 2019 season. However, Anderson will probably move back to safety, a position he has played before, and team with fellow redshirt senior Troy Warner in the back of the secondary.
Inside linebacker Payton Wilgar, a rising sophomore, is another candidate to become the pass-rushing linebacker the Cougars have desperately needed since Takitaki moved on to the NFL. He led the team with three interceptions last year, and the linebackers as a whole led the team with 10 of its 15 picks.
Wilgar’s 54 tackles was fifth-most for the Cougars, while Tooley’s 48 ranked sixth.
Other returners with experience are Ben Bywater, Jackson Kaufusi, Drew Jensen and Matthew Criddle. Jensen, the former Brighton High star, could be moved back to safety, the position he played before sustaining a devastating knee injury in 2018.
One of the nine players BYU announced on Dec. 18 as mid-year January additions is a linebacker — former Lone Peak three-star recruit Preston Lewis, a returned missionary. Another three-star LB recruit from the 2018 signing class, Oliver Nasilai of Springdale, Arkansas, returns from a mission later this year and will likely be one of those guys who is held out early in hopes he can play four games or fewer and redshirt.
Two-time Corner Canyon all-state linebacker Josh Wilson, brother of starting quarterback Zach Wilson, will also join the unit in the fall looking for immediate playing time. The Cougars are still in a recruiting battle for American Fork linebacker Bodie Schoonover, a three-star recruit who committed to them last summer but didn’t sign in December and has entertained offers from Pac-12 schools such as UCLA.