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Why is BYU’s leading tackler in 2019 moving from linebacker to safety in 2020?

Versatile senior Kavika Fonua will move to the secondary as BYU coaches attempt to get best 11 defenders on the field

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Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald (13) runs with the ball as BYU linebacker Kavika Fonua (34) gives chase during the second half of the Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu. Fonua, a senior, is moving from linebacker to safety this season for the Cougars.

Eugene Tanner, AP

PROVO — Six years later, after so many position changes that he’s almost lost count, BYU’s Kavika Fonua is back where it began — playing safety for the Cougars.

“Any position that keeps me on the field, I am all for,” Fonua said, confirming reports that he’s considering a move to safety after leading the Cougars in tackles last season with 83 as an inside linebacker.

More importantly, to Fonua and his family, the former Syracuse High starhas a college degree in hand. He graduated in April in exercise and wellness, and will take some post-graduate courses this fall as he concludes a college football career that began way back in 2014.

“It means a lot that I got the opportunity to get an education, especially at a school as well known as BYU,” said Fonua, who is referred to as “gramps” or “old man” by his teammates because he’s 25, having served a mission to Vancouver, British Columbia, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It is gratifying to know I put my time and effort not only into football, but into my education.”

Switching to safety isn’t the only big change in Fonua’s life. On March 6, just before the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancelation of spring football practices, he got married.

His bride, Veronica Loo, is a BYU student from Oregon who goes by “Nica.” That means “people like to say, ‘Hey, there’s Nica and Vika,’ that kind of thing,” Fonua said, chuckling.

At first glance, it might seem odd that BYU coaches are taking their leading tackler from last year and moving him to safety, but Fonua said he felt comfortable with the idea and feels like it will work out for the better, now and in the future when he tries to catch the attention of NFL teams.

“It is not about the weight,” said the 6-foot, 205-pound senior. “I have always felt like I could add more weight if I needed to, even though I have always thought I was a little undersized to play linebacker. This is about staying faster and being better in coverage.”

“I am not surprised he hasn’t retired, because that’s the type of guy he is. He loves to compete, and he loves to be around the guys. He brings a lot more to the team than just playing on the field. He’s a real leader and a real positive force in the locker room.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake on defender Kavika Fonua

Clearly, BYU coaches are shaking up their defensive schemes, although they’ve been hesitant to provide details. Expect a lot of 4-2-5 alignments in 2020, with Fonua perhaps playing nickel in an effort to get the best 11 defenders on the field at once. Rising sophomore Max Tooley has also said he’s moving from backer to safety, or nickel. And former flash linebacker Chaz Ah You could become a safety as well.

Isaiah Kaufusi and Payton Wilgar will likely be the two starting linebackers when BYU opens the season at Utah on Sept. 3, backed up by Navy transfer Pepe Tanuvasa and sophomore Keenan Pili. Promising redshirt freshman Ben Bywater is also a possibility at backup linebacker.

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BYU linebacker Kavika Fonua (34) helped bring down Liberty running back Joshua Mack in Provo, Utah on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I have been looking to the future and thinking about my future,” Fonua said. “I want to especially show the versatility I have and the experience I have. There are plenty of nickels out there in the NFL and that could really help me. Hopefully I can show that versatility to the league.”

Last summer, after he sustained a fractured fibula in spring camp of 2018 that caused him to miss the entire 2018 season, some suggested that Fonua’s career might be over. Head coach Kalani Sitake said there was never a doubt in his mind that Fonua would return better than ever.

Kavika Fonua’s many roles at BYU

Kavika Fonua’s many roles at BYU


2014 — Syracuse High product recorded 14 tackles at safety as a true freshman in 11 games

2015 — Served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Vancouver, B.C.

2016 — Played linebacker as a sophomore and totaled 24 tackles while playing in all 13 games

2017 — Moved to running back, rushed for 87 yards in four games before suffering season-ending back injury

2018 — Took a medical redshirt season after breaking his leg (fibula) in spring camp

2019 — Moved back to linebacker and led team with 83 total tackles, also made two interceptions

2020 — Taking reps at safety and nickel as coaches attempt to get best 11 defenders on the field

“I am not surprised he hasn’t retired, because that’s the type of guy he is,” Sitake said. “He loves to compete, and he loves to be around the guys. He brings a lot more to the team than just playing on the field. He’s a real leader and a real positive force in the locker room.”

Fonua said players brought back a lot of energy when they returned to campus on June 1 for voluntary workouts.

We are all hungry,” he said. “We can’t wait to get back into the swing of things. Fall camp is coming around the corner and we are all pumped up and ready to go. We are more eager than the previous years.”

If professional football doesn’t work out, Fonua said he might give coaching a try, perhaps a strength and conditioning coach.

“This year has been so different,” he said. “You appreciate what those guys do. As players, we are hungrier than ever to get back to hitting even though it got cut short in the spring. We are definitely gung-ho right now.”

Kavika Fonua’s many roles at BYU

2014 — Syracuse High product recorded 14 tackles at safety as a true freshman in 11 games

2015 — Served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Vancouver, B.C.

2016 — Played linebacker as a sophomore and totaled 24 tackles while playing in all 13 games

2017 — Moved to running back, rushed for 87 yards in four games before suffering season-ending back injury

2018 — Took a medical redshirt season after breaking his leg (fibula) in spring camp

2019 — Moved back to linebacker and led team with 83 total tackles, also made two interceptions

2020 — Taking reps at safety and nickel as coaches attempt to get best 11 defenders on the field