‘We will get better,’ returning nose tackle Khyiris Tonga says of BYU’s defensive line in 2020
Cougars struggled to stop the run early in 2019 season and only recorded 17 sacks in 13 games, but most of their top defensive linemen are back and spirits are high with the return of Tonga, who flirted with the idea of entering April’s NFL draft
PROVO — Even with likely future professional football player Khyiris Tonga manning the middle, BYU’s defensive line was not dominant in 2019, as many expected it to be. A case could be made that it took a step backward, especially early in the season when the likes of Utah, Washington and even Toledo and South Florida ran roughshod over the Cougars.
BYU gave up 37 more rushing yards per game in 2019 than it did in 2018, and a half-yard more per carry. There are other ways to measure the proficiency of a defensive line, but that stat and the fact that it recorded only 17 sacks in 13 games, ranking 117th in the country in that category, is an embarrassing indictment of the unit defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki works with the most.
How will it fare in 2020?
Tonga’s somewhat surprising announcement on New Year’s Eve that he is returning for his senior season, rather than declare for April’s NFL Draft, can only help, but the 6-foot-4, 320-pound bull must get in better shape to impress scouts and fortify the defense up the middle. He was not on the field for roughly 30% of BYU’s defensive plays last season, often citing fatigue.
“I am just trying to put myself in better situations, whether on the field or off the field,” Tonga said when he and tight end Matt Bushman met with reporters on Jan. 17 to explain why they returned. “I am just trying to do more or whatever I can do as an individual. I just want to better myself in every way possible.”
As far as his conditioning is concerned, Tonga said that improvement is “already happening,” as are dietary restrictions.
“Definitely no McDonald’s,” he said. “I’ll just be in the weight room more, just doing extra work. More cardio, too, while just trying to improve where I need to improve.”
Obviously, a lot of the 2020 defensive line’s success depends on how Tonga and his cohorts are used, and in what positions. The Cougars still refer to themselves as a 4-3 defense on their depth charts, but more often than not in 2019 they were in a 3-4 front, and there were times, especially early, when Tonga lined up at defensive end rather than his familiar and more effective nose tackle spot.
He laughed when it was suggested he and Bushman will be the “faces” of the program in 2020.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “I will leave that to the offensive players. I am just ready to step up to where I need to be, do my best to contribute wherever I can.”
BYU finished 78th in rushing defense, after spending the first half of the season in the 100s. That’s 4.23 yards per rush and 167.5 rushing yards per game.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Cougars lost to Hawaii 38-34 despite giving up just 2 rushing yards. They sacked UH quarterback Cole McDonald, a junior who has declared for the NFL draft, but gave up 493 passing yards at Aloha Stadium.
So there’s work to do, Tonga acknowledges.
“I am just super grateful to be back with my brothers on the defensive line,” he said. “I am excited to have one more year with them, and the team as well. They have been supportive since the day I got here.”
With spring ball starting on March 2, the Cougars should welcome back not only Tonga, but most of their contributors along the defensive line. The only defensive linemen who exhausted their eligibility are Trajan Pili and JJ Nwigwe, defensive star of the Hawaii Bowl.
Rising seniors Bracken El-Bakri (who missed the bowl game with a lower leg injury) and Uriah Leiataua are the projected starters at the end positions, while junior Lorenzo Fauatea also returns as a nice complement inside to Tonga.
Others who will push for playing time include Zac Dawe, Alden Tofa, Atunaisa Mahe, Austin Chambers, Seleti Fevaleaki, Gabe Summers, Devin Kaufusi and Earl Tuioti-Mariner.
“I see a lot of experienced guys, and also a lot of potential,” Tonga said. “We should be pretty good.”
BYU fans are waiting for head coach Kalani Sitake to develop the type of pass rushers he had as Utah’s defensive coordinator. Is it scheme, or less-talented personnel?
“It’s a combination of things,” Tonga said. “We will get better.”
BYU’s projected starting defensive line in 2020
Defensive end — Bracken El-Bakri, 6-3, 290, Sr.
Nose tackle — Khyiris Tonga, 6-4, 320, Sr.
Tackle — Lorenzo Fauatea, 6-4, 300, Jr.
Outside end — Uriah Leiataua, 6-4, 262, Sr.
Other expected contributors: Zac Dawe, Alden Tofa, Atunaisa Mahe, Austin Chambers, Seleti Fevaleaki, Gabe Summers, Devin Kaufusi, Earl Tuioti-Mariner
Key losses: Trajan Pili, JJ Nwigwe
Tonga on what he loves about college football. pic.twitter.com/GI9jcG3kJ9— Jay Drew (@drewjay) January 17, 2020