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How Kalani Sitake and Ilaisa Tuiaki rebuilt No. 8 BYU’s defense to be more aggressive in 2020

Cougars were weak against the run and failed to pressure quarterbacks the past few seasons, but have improved immensely in those areas due to the ability to play more man-pressure defense in the secondary.

BYU defensive back Chris Wilcox defends Arizona wide receiver Shawn Poindexter (19) in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Wilcox has become a leader in the Cougars’ secondary.
BYU defensive back Chris Wilcox defends Arizona wide receiver Shawn Poindexter (19) in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Wilcox has become a leader in the Cougars’ secondary.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When things were going south for nationally ranked BYU’s defense against Houston last month and journeyman quarterback Clayton Tune was carving it up like he was Tom Brady, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki turned to measures that would have seemed unimaginable the past few years.

They dialed up some man-press coverage.

Suddenly, BYU was able to slow down Tune and his fleet corps of receivers, Heisman Trophy candidate Zach Wilson got the offense rolling, and the blue Cougars rolled to a 43-26 victory.

“We had to regroup at halftime and get in the locker room and talk things over, and we came up with some changes defensively,” Sitake said after the game at TDECU Stadium on Oct. 16. “We did some things differently scheme-wise that I think we are going to have to go to, and be a little more aggressive in a lot of different ways.”

That was sort of a watershed moment for BYU’s defense, a culmination of a plan hatched five years ago when Sitake replaced another defensive guru, Bronco Mendenhall, and brought Tuiaki with him from Oregon State, where Sitake was DC and Tuiaki was linebackers coach.

The coaches started searching far and wide for the type of athletes — cornerbacks and defensive ends, primarily — who could play the kind of aggressive defense they had used successfully when they were at Utah from 2012-14 (Tuiaki) and 2005-14 (Sitake).

It has taken awhile, but the No. 8 Cougars’ play in this pandemic-altered 2020 season is showing the coaches have hit their mark. Of course, it has to be mentioned that BYU’s schedule has been much easier than the other four in Sitake’s tenure, but the improvement is noteworthy nevertheless.

“I think we are closer to where we want to be,” Tuiaki said Tuesday as BYU continued preparations to host FCS foe North Alabama on Saturday (1 p.m., BYUtv) at LaVell Edwards Stadium. “Obviously as a coach you never feel like you are exactly where you want to be, but we are closer.”

With the caveat that the 8-0 Cougars’ strength of schedule is 97th in the country, according to Jeff Sagarin’s College Football Ratings, BYU is No. 6 in both scoring defense (13.9 points per game) and total defense (284.9 yards per game).

Senior nose tackle Khyiris Tonga said this is the best defense he’s played on in his four seasons in Provo.

“This is definitely at the top for me,” said Tonga, who has “no regrets” about deciding to return to BYU rather than enter last April’s NFL draft. “It has been different, just being able to play with guys who have been brought into the system and to all the coaching points. We see it on the field, we see it in practice. It has been a fun season to be able to play with these guys.”

Tuiaki’s crew is 11th in rushing defense (93.3 yards) and 22nd in passing defense (191.6 yards). More importantly, the Cougars already have 21 sacks, after getting just 17 all of last year.

Last year, in losses to Utah, Washington, Toledo, South Florida and San Diego State, the Cougars had trouble stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback. Neither has been a glaring weakness this year, partly because the man-press coverage applied by the corners has freed up safeties and linebackers for run support.

“Kalani and Ilaisa did a good job of emphasizing stopping the run the whole offseason,” Tonga said. “That is something that we are taking pride in. Last year we knew we struggled. We took it as a challenge this season. … Overall there has been a huge improvement in the run defense and it has been fun.”

In fairness, BYU’s defense under Tuiaki has been more consistent overall than its offense, evidenced by the dismissal of almost the entire offensive coaching staff after the 2017 season. But the project is far from complete, and the Cougars probably can’t say they’ve arrived defensively until they go toe-to-toe with Power Five offenses such as Arizona, Utah, Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and USC that they are scheduled to face in 2021, barring more COVID-19 cancellations.

“Through the years, we have grown a lot, gotten a lot of the corners in so we could play the type of defense that we wanted, and just continued to improve the defensive line,” Tuiaki said. “But there is always a need for another up-and-coming corner to join your room and another D end to come in and show the ability to rush the passer, and a D tackle that is disruptive.”

One such cornerback is senior Chris Wilcox, who has developed into an NFL prospect after a shaky start when he was thrust into action as an untested freshman and learned some hard lessons only a few months removed from high school. Juniors Keenan Ellis, D’Angelo Mandell and Shamon Willis, sophomore Isaiah Herron and freshman Micah Harper join Wilcox to give BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford arguably his best group in his five-year tenure.

“Definitely, yeah, I feel like the cornerback room has definitely improved a lot,” said Wilcox, who will decline the NCAA’s “free year” offer due to the pandemic and pursue his NFL dreams at season’s end. “I am comfortable with (reserves) coming in, knowing they are going to do the exact same thing as the starters. We have got Micah Harper coming up and he is going to be great in the next couple years.”

Tonga said aggressiveness best describes the Cougars’ defense in 2020, while Wilcox said the ability to adjust on the fly is its greatest strength.

“I feel like we are very physical, fast, and we are very smart,” Wilcox said. “There have been times this year where the first drive, they will drive all the way down. We will have to go to our drawing board. We will make adjustments and then from there on out I feel like we finish really well.”