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BYU’s defensive coordinator has ‘zero’ experience defending Navy’s triple-option offense. Is that a problem?

When Cougars and Midshipmen meet on Sept. 7, BYU’s Ilaisa Tuiaki will be facing the unique offense for the first time as a defensive coordinator

FILE: Navy fullback Jamale Carothers (34) avoids a tackle by Tulane safety Chase Kuerschen while scoring a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Annapolis. Carothers rushed for 14 touchdowns last season.
Julio Cortez, Associated Press

PROVO — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki is known for speaking succinctly, but this answer went beyond his usual brevity.

“I’ve had zero. Yup. Next question.”

Those were the only words that came out of Tuiaki’s mouth on Thursday when he was asked how much experience he has had defending the triple-option attack that the Cougars will face on Labor Day against Navy and 12 days later on Sept. 19 against Army.

It was hard to get a precise read on what Tuiaki was suggesting — the group interview conducted via Zoom and all, making follow-up questions difficult to pull off — but the response wasn’t exactly encouraging for BYU fans still smarting over how the Cougars struggled to defend the run last year.

Quick reminder: BYU was 78th in the country against the run in 2019, giving up 167.5 yards on the ground per game.

Meanwhile, Navy was No. 1 in the country in rushing offense at 360.5 yards per game and Army was No. 3 at 297.2. The other service academy that runs the option, Air Force, was second at 298.5 per game.

“Yeah, it is going to be tough to stop,” BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar said of Navy’s offense on Aug. 7. “But we have a month to prepare for it and get everything down, so we are excited to see it.”

Tuiaki, not so much, if his thoughts after the Cougars concluded their final scrimmage of preseason training camp Thursday are any indication. But the fifth-year DC is not the excitable type, and at least he’s got the defensive talent to put up a scrap, he said, assuming they can avoid injuries the next two weeks before kickoff.

“We have to make sure we get all the big dogs to the fight,” Tuiaki said. “You show up with a bunch of players that aren’t developed yet and aren’t ready to play, you don’t look as good as a coach. … We need to keep everybody healthy and get them to that Navy game.”

Although BYU has worked on Navy preparation here and there since the announcement was made on Aug. 6, head coach Kalani Sitake said Thursday that the Cougars will turn their “full attention” to the Midshipmen on Friday, then take the weekend off and get back at it Monday with a game plan mostly intact.

“I would say scheme-wise, when it comes down to Navy stuff, it is just way different,” Sitake said. “It is a unique offense. … They are going to test your toughness and your discipline.”

A running back at Snow College and SUU before he was offensive coordinator at Kearns High, Tuiaki got his first real taste coaching defense at Utah, where he was a defensive graduate assistant in 2008 and a defensive line coach in 2013-14. He followed Sitake to BYU in 2016 after Sitake was defensive coordinator and Tuiaki was linebackers coach at Oregon State in 2015.

Tuiaki faced Air Force while at Utah in 2008, a 30-23 Utes win in which AFA was held to 53 rushing yards and 191 overall. But that’s the extent of his experience.

The year prior, with Sitake as Utah’s linebackers coach, Navy rushed for 316 of its 438 total yards in a 35-32 Poinsettia Bowl loss to the Utes. Sitake became Utah’s defensive coordinator in 2009 and the Utes beat Air Force 23-16 in 2009 and 28-23 in 2010 before they joined the Pac-12 in 2011 and stopped playing the Falcons.

“I have had experience facing it in the past, so I have seen it,” Sitake said. “There are a lot of different ways to defend it. When it comes down to it, that option (is utilized) so they can take advantage of someone being undisciplined and trying to do too much instead of doing their one-eleventh on the field.”

As the depth chart is formulated this weekend and the scout team put together to mimic the offenses of Army and Navy, Sitake said “probably a number of different people” will serve as the scout team quarterback.

“We will try some scout team receivers that are quick and can do that to be able to get a good read for us,” Sitake said. “And then we will be able to get guys who have been in the system before. We have guys like (former Spanish Fork quarterback) Jason Money who are that option for us as well.”

Noting has gone as planned in this year of the coronavirus pandemic, but scheduling Navy and Army the same month could be beneficial for the Cougars, Sitake surmised.

“Seeing that we will have our first two opponents (use) this type of scheme, it helps out getting that early jump at it, and having our guys learn it,” he said. “It is good to have them back-to-back.”