PROVO — If there’s a record for most positions on a defensive depth chart, BYU’s 2020 version — at least the one leading up to Monday’s season opener at Navy — has to be in the running for it.
No fewer than 14 spots are listed — four on the defensive line, five at linebacker and five at defensive back. Of course, in football only 11 players are allowed on the field at one time.
The Cougars have preached for weeks that their defense will have to be versatile and flexible this year, especially when they face the triple-option attacks of Navy and Army (Sept. 19) in their first two games, and the two-deep clearly shows that.
The word head coach Kalani Sitake most often uses to describe the combination of cornerback, linebacker and safety is “hybrid,” which in reality is an effort to get the best 11 defenders on the field to match the opposing offense across the ball.
“It takes a unique player to play those positions that can be a hybrid,” Sitake said. “We may need them to be a safety, a linebacker and a corner at different times. That’s probably the best way to put it.”
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said it was almost like the Cougars had to establish two distinct defensive schemes in fall camp, one to face the service academies and another to go against spread and multiple-formation offenses later in the season — which as of Thursday included eight games.
“Different offensive schemes require different types of people to stop them,” Tuiaki said. “It has been a challenge trying to get all these good hybrid-type guys on the field, but also a blessing to have so many good defensive players.”
Sophomore Keenan Pili, who appeared in 11 games last year, is the starter at mike (middle) linebacker, backed up by senior Kavika Fonua. Senior Isaiah Kaufusi is now called the rover, while sophomore Payton Wilgar is the starting flash linebacker.
Sophomore Max Tooley, who will have to sit out the first half of the Navy game due to getting a targeting penalty in the waning moments of the bowl game last December, and Navy transfer Pepe Tanuvasa are listed as the co-starters at the jack linebacker spot.
Junior Chaz Ah You is the starter at the hybrid position coaches call the “cinco” position.
Who came up with these position names?
“I don’t know who came up with those — probably coach (Ed) Lamb, or coach Tuiaki,” said starting free safety Zayne Anderson. “And it is Kalani’s defense as well. … Yeah, it is kinda different than in the past, but we are expecting all those guys to be playing in different packages.”
Senior Troy Warner, who has also played cornerback and nickel, returns from a foot injury and has nailed down the starting strong safety spot. Fonua, who led the team in tackles last year as a linebacker, is listed as the starting nickel.
“Having a lot of versatile players allows the coaches to get the best players on the field,” Warner said. “It is a good problem to have — a lot of talented players, a lot of depth, and I think that is going to be a strong point for this team for this upcoming season.”
Next stop Annapolis, Maryland! pic.twitter.com/nkENpzdoI9— BYU Equipment (@byuequipment) September 3, 2020
Senior Chris Wilcox earned the starting left cornerback spot, while junior Keenan Ellis edged returning starter D’Angelo Mandell at right corner, apparently.
“Everything that we have (determined) as a defense, everything goes to the head coach (for a decision), so that’s probably what you are looking at,” Tuiaki said.
The depth chart also reflects the movement toward more four-man fronts, with seniors Zac Dawe (defensive end), Khyiris Tonga (nose tackle), Bracken El-Bakri (tackle) and junior Alden Tofa (outside end) claiming the starting positions there.
Tuiaki said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” show that in camp there was a noticeable drop-off when Tonga, El-Bakri or linebackers Pili and Wilgar weren’t on the field, which is why he named those four the defensive MVPs of camp.
“Bracken, he takes a load off me,” Tonga said. “He is just super sound, and physical. It is hard to block two D-tackles who do the same thing.”
As far as being the run-stuffer the Cougars will need against the Midshipmen, Tonga acknowledged that he has never faced an option attack before, not even in high school, but believes the past month of training for it has prepared him well.
“We just need to be disciplined,” Tonga said. “They are very disciplined, a very good run team, and it is going to be on us as a defense, and especially a D-line, to be stout.”
So can all this versatility, all this rotating of personnel after virtually every play, slow down a Navy offense that was practically unstoppable last year? Sitake said it will take much more than that.
“The fundamentals are going to (need to) help us if we are going to win this game,” Sitake said. “It is blocking well on offense and tackling well and making sure we are disciplined. Those are the keys: fundamentals and discipline. We are going to focus on that and just look at ways to limit their playmakers. They have a team built on physicality and toughness, so we are going to have to match it.”