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Why Kalani Sitake has been ‘heavily involved’ with the BYU football defense during the pandemic

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki describes ways in which a defense that has been mediocre the past few seasons can get back to its 2016 glory

Head coach Kalani Sitake talks to reporters after Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Head coach Kalani Sitake talks to reporters after Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020. BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki says the Cougars’ defensive coaches are working hard in the offseason to identify why they’ve slipped in the NCAA’s defensive rankings, and confirms that Sitake is more involved with the defense than ever before.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PROVO — The numbers don’t lie.

BYU’s defense has gradually worsened the past four football seasons under head coach Kalani Sitake and his hand-picked defensive coordinator, Ilaisa Tuiaki. It’s not terrible, but it hasn’t been great, either.

Mediocre is the word that might describe it the best the past two years. The Cougars’ defense ranked 68th in the country last season, allowing 393.5 yards per game. In 2018, it ranked 51st, giving up 372.8 yards per game.

What’s the problem? Everything from failure to get pressure, and sacks, on opposing quarterbacks to shoddy tackling to the inability to stop rushing attacks has been fingered by BYU fans, especially last year after letdowns on that side of the ball led to losses against Toledo, South Florida and Hawaii.

And don’t get people started on that rush three, drop eight strategy that, granted, worked well in a few games but was ripped apart by Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald in the bowl game.

What happened to that attacking defense in Sitake and Tuiaki’s first season, 2016, that had the Cougars sitting at No. 23 in the land in total defense against a rugged schedule that included Utah, Michigan State, UCLA, West Virginia, Mississippi State, Arizona and Boise State?

Credit Sitake and Tuiaki for putting in extra time, by all accounts, to get it figured out as the coronavirus pandemic has opened up more time for coaches to focus less on recruiting in May and June and more on their current personnel and game plans.

Tuiaki told the Deseret News last Wednesday that Sitake has been “involved heavily” with the defense since the bowl game, including the six spring camp practices before everything was shut down.

“A lot of the (position changes) we are seeing is really us backing up all the things Kalani wants to see us do,” Tuiaki said. “He has obviously had a lot of success in his years as a coordinator just moving around certain guys and just trying to get the best 11 guys on the field to do the job.”

Tuiaki said some of the moves will “end up being permanent,” but some are just to get players cross-trained in case they’re needed midseason. He didn’t specify.

As has been reported, linebackers Kavika Fonua, Max Tooley and George Udo were getting reps at safety in spring camp, for instance. Linebacker Payton Wilgar, who missed spring ball due to illness, will be looked at as a rush defensive end, as will former tight end Alema Pilimai.

Sitake has been “sitting in on meetings, taking part in a lot of schematic discussions, basically making decisions that need to be made,” Tuiaki said. “It is kind of hard for somebody to do it halfway — just come in and say a couple of things and leave. So in order for us to really see his vision through, as far as he sees it, he has got to be involved in the decisions as well.”

Tuiaki said the eight other defensive coaches in the room “are fully, fully backing (Sitake) up and trying to make sure the vision he sees is what we do moving forward exactly as the head coach wants.”

When spring camp commenced in March, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes spelled out the offense’s priorities in the offseason.

What are defense’s priorities?

Tuiaki said four years have shown that the defense is most effective when it creates havoc — puts pressure on the quarterback and forces him into making mistakes — and when it stops the run.

“This is probably the most returning starters we have had coming back on defense in all the time that I have been here,” he said, noting the only significant losses have been graduated safeties Dayan Ghanwoloku and Austin Lee. “For us, just continuing to work on understanding our defense, as far as increasing our football IQ, is important, as well as working on fundamentals, and getting stronger. That’s our goal.”

Tuiaki acknowledges that the defense hasn’t performed as well the past two years as it did his first two years since coming from Oregon State with Sitake.

“But overall we’ve been pretty consistent,” he said. “We just got to keep that up and keep working on our depth and conditioning. With all the moves taking place, we have to be sure that everybody is understanding what they are being asked to do. If a kid that has been playing ’backer is being asked to play safety, then in the offseason he has to back-pedal every day, because that’s an unnatural movement. So those types of things — just tightening up and getting ready to get back in and pick up where we left off.”

Of course, four defensive players have entered the transfer portal this offseason. Promising cornerback Isaiah Herron decided to stay at BYU, while defensive linemen Devin Kaufusi (Utah) and Austin Chambers (Maine) have announced their destinations and linebacker Alex Miskela has not.

A troubling trend?

No, says Tuiaki.

“I think it is just the yearly attrition that happens,” he said. “Obviously, some kids end up hanging it up due to injury, and some kids hang it up due to not wanting to play football, and others decide to go elsewhere. It is just kinda part of the game, part of how it is.”

Fonua and safety Troy Warner, both rising seniors, said the departures don’t signal any sort of discontentment with the coaching staff, as far as they know.

“I think at the end of the day, guys are just trying to do what is best for them,” Warner said. “And whether that is because they are not getting enough playing time, and they want to pursue that somewhere else, or if there is something personal about why they are leaving, I don’t know. I for sure want guys to be happy where they are at and not feel like they are stuck in a situation where they can’t see themselves succeeding. So if they feel it best to go elsewhere because of their current circumstances, then more power to them. I feel like guys deserve to be happy and to succeed.”

Said Fonua: “I have a close relationship with all of them, and it does hurt a little bit to see them go. … But no one wants to stop them from doing what they want to do. It doesn’t really affect the team, but it is really is hard to see friends who you are spending all that time with, spilling all the blood and sweat together with, up and go. I wish them all the best.”