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BYU football: What if we told you the No. 8 Cougars could have the same stingy defense next year, but probably won’t?

At least 10 seniors have started on BYU’s defense this year and could take advantage of the NCAA allowing a free year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic and return next season

Boise State Broncos quarterback Jack Sears (16) sets to pass as BYU defensive linemen Bracken El-Bakri (93) and Zac Dawe (99) move in during a game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.
Boise State Broncos quarterback Jack Sears (16) sets to pass as BYU defensive linemen Bracken El-Bakri (93) and Zac Dawe (99) move in during a game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Take one glance at No. 8 BYU’s two-deep chart on the defensive side of the ball, and you will notice seniors everywhere.

Head coach Kalani Sitake and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki have developed an experienced group that offensive stars such as quarterback Zach Wilson and receiver Gunner Romney say is better than any defense they’ve faced in real games this season.

There have been games during BYU’s magical 9-0 season where no fewer than 10 seniors have started or seen significant action. They are largely responsible for BYU being No. 7 in the country in total defense (292.6 yards per game) and No. 5 in scoring defense (13.9 points per game).

BYU is the only team in the nation in the top 10 in both scoring/total defense and scoring/total offense.

“We’ve played great complementary football,” Sitake said.

So what if we told you that the entire defense could return intact next season? It is possible — but highly unlikely.

In August, when the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening to shut down or significantly alter the 2020 college football season, the NCAA’s Division I Board of Governors followed recommendations from its Division I Council and approved giving all fall sport athletes “both an additional year of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it” with a blanket waiver.

Basically, it is a free year of eligibility.

Usually, college athletes have five years to play four seasons of competition; now they have six to play five.

So, BYU seniors such as defensive linemen Khyiris Tonga, Zac Dawe, Bracken El-Bakri and Uriah Leiataua, linebackers such as Kavika Fonua and Isaiah Kaufusi, and defensive backs such as Chris Wilcox, Troy Warner, Jared Kapisi and Zayne Anderson, could theoretically be back in 2021 if they so desire.

Three offensive linemen are seniors — Tristen Hoge, Chandon Herring and Kieffer Longson — so they could also return.

Do they have that desire?

A few have addressed the situation in recent weeks, while the majority have not.

Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga celebrates a first down in the closing minutes against the Boise State Broncos during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga celebrates a play in the closing minutes against the Boise State Broncos in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Tonga is probably the Cougar defense’s best pro prospect, but he surprised some folks last week by saying it is not a done deal that he is definitely leaving. Tonga, who has 117 career tackles and 7.5 sacks, probably would have been drafted last April but chose to return.

“I love being here. I enjoy being here,” he told the Deseret News. “I have no regrets about coming back. It has been super fun. And I am not sure what I am going to do next. I am not really thinking about it right now. I have just been focusing on the games. So whatever happens, happens.”

Tonga said the Cougars’ success this year probably won’t be a factor. What will be a factor is his age because he served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Wichita, Kansas, before enrolling at BYU.

“It has been super fun to be on this team, and the scary part of it is we haven’t even played our best game, and we all know that,” he said. “Every week we are out there proving ourselves, not only to the world but to ourselves that we can play. Whatever the future holds, I don’t know. Right now I am having fun with it.”

Fellow defensive lineman Dawe, who also served a church mission (in Houston), said he’s also in the undecided camp. Dawe is having his best season as a Cougar, with 27 tackles, two sacks and a quarterback hurry.

“I haven’t done that evaluation yet,” Dawe said. “I am just going to play the rest of the season and come back and address that later. Us seniors, we are just trying to focus on this year and make the best out of this year and just do our best this year before we think about the future.”

At least one senior has already made up his mind. Cornerback Chris Wilcox, who got his degree last spring, is definitely leaving, he said.

“I plan on finishing the season strong and then I will start getting ready for the next level,” Wilcox said.

Leiataua has also graduated and will almost certainly move on; Anderson has been in the program for six years, due to several season-ending injuries.

“All those guys will have to make the decision when the time comes,” Sitake said last month.

Coaches will also have some tough decisions to make in regards to roster juggling and scholarship limitations if the NCAA doesn’t expand the limit beyond 85. There are also financial factors to consider; BYU announced last week it faces a $20 million shortfall in athletic department revenue.