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Why BYU tackle Khyiris Tonga is such a focal point for Cougar defense

Imposing nose guard returned for his senior year at BYU to enhance his NFL stock. After his performance at Navy, he’s on the right track during a season many collegians are not even playing.

BYU’s Khyiris Tonga holds a United States flag while waiting to take the field with teammates before an NCAA college football game against Navy, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. Tonga wreaked havoc for Navy’s offensive line during the Cougars’ thumping of the Midshipmen on Monday.
AP

PROVO — Khyiris Tonga was the center of attention when he announced he’d return to BYU for a senior season last winter.

He was the center of attention before and during the opener at Navy.

Tonga remains an important focus for BYU as it prepares for its Sept. 19 meeting against Army at West Point.

The giant nose guard soaks up blockers, just absorbs them.

In BYU’s 55-3 win at Navy, Tonga took on double teams and shucked off blockers like an animated cartoon superhero figure. Navy blockers were bouncing off his shoulder pads, arms and torso like pins in a bowling lane. All that inertia allowed BYU’s linebackers to make huge plays.

At times, Tonga was hit high and low, not a kosher NCAA-approved play. But what’s an offense to do when you are blocking a cinder block that won’t move backward?

As a result, Navy couldn’t establish its fullback dive. It hit the garage door and it wouldn’t open. As a result, Navy often went backwards. The average third-down play yardage needed by the nation’s defending national rushing title team was 9.8 yards.

Think about that.

Navy quarterback Dalen Morris, center, runs as BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (95) defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md.
Tommy Gilligan, Associated Press

Most of Navy’s third-down plays required a 10-yard gain to convert. It converted two of its 11 tries. For an option team, that’s a recipe for circling the drain.

BYU’s defense had five sacks on Navy quarterbacks and 12 tackles for loss.

It seemed BYU’s defense was a few steps ahead of Navy all game long, primarily by controlling the first option, that dive by the fullback. Tonga was at the center of BYU’s defensive formations, which showed three, four, five, six and seven defenders in the box at different times.

Tonga credited his position coach, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki for preparing the defense, especially the defensive line.

“It was very disciplined play,” said Tonga. “It was a matter of stepping the right way and being really sound on the defensive line. This (Navy) team cuts a lot and we don’t see a lot of that. We were able to use our hands a lot and dominate upfront and we were able to show that.”

Tonga also credited BYU’s scout teams. In other words, he believes BYU’s scout offense gave them such good looks and emulated Navy’s sets and speed of play at a level the starters could really learn what to do, practicing it until it became natural.

Tonga said preparing for Navy was a collective effort of all BYU’s defensive coaches, from the cornerbacks coach to linebackers and defensive line coach Tuiaki and head coach Kalani Sitake.

”Everybody got to chime in,” he explained. “It was a learning opportunity for all of us because many of us hadn’t seen this kind of offense before.”

Sitake claimed his role during the game was primarily to enjoy the players having fun, call a few timeouts and technicalities.

What he saw unfold, he said, was the result of his staff listening to players and designing plays, formations and sets that they felt comfortable with and believed would work.

That it came from team leadership, with guys like Tonga, made it all the more pleasing for Sitake.

While Navy and Army both run the triple-option, there are differences Sitake said the Cougars must adjust to because Army now has film of BYU formations that Navy had to guess about during the game.

The Cougars played plenty of freshmen linebackers a year ago like Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley, Drew Jensen, Jackson Kaufusi and Keenan Pili, and took some lumps in the learning process.

In the Navy game, freshmen defensive linemen Seleti Fevaleaki and Caden Haws saw their first action, as did the leading tackler in the game, Navy transfer junior linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa.

The encouraging thing for the BYU defense, the only one playing west of Texas, is that all these players are getting needed playing time in the COVID-19 season of 2020.

And all of them have their eligibility for this year restored next year, if they choose.

Including Tonga.