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BYU gave up the fourth-fewest points in the country last year, so why are Cougars making new defensive coaching assignments?

Cougars were also 10th in total defense and 19th in rushing defense, but struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked 65th in total sacks

BYU tight end Isaac Rex battles for pass with a BYU defender during spring practice Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Provo. BYU coach Kalani Sitake added a fifth defensive coach this year, so defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki has shuffled his staff this offseason, moving Ed Lamb to safeties coach, hiring Kevin Clune as linebackers coach and moving safeties coach Preston Hadley to defensive ends coach.
BYU Photo

BYU’s defense was one of the best in the country last season, ranking 10th in total defense, fourth in scoring defense and 19th in rushing defense when all was said and done.

Naturally, head coach Kalani Sitake gave it a boost in the offseason, at least from a coaching perspective, by adding a fifth defensive coach to his staff — veteran Kevin Clune — when a couple offensive coaches bolted for Baylor, Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos.

Most schools have an even split of five coaches on each side of the ball, but for years Sitake operated with six on offense and four on defense, perhaps because of his own background as a defensive coach during his years at Utah and Oregon State.

Sixth-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said Thursday after the Cougars wrapped up their third practice of spring camp — taking it outside for the first time in March — that he never really clamored for the additional coach, but appreciates the move nevertheless.

“Getting another full-time position on the defensive side (is big),” Tuiaki said. “I had never really realized how much we were missing out. It always felt like we were doing a good job with four coaches and kind of battling. We wanted the offense to have those six coaches so they could be successful.

“But having five coaches on our side has been refreshing and I am really happy with the way it is going right now,” he continued.

The addition of Clune, who was with the Cougars last year as a consultant, means BYU has four coaches on its staff who have been defensive coordinators before — Clune, Tuiaki, Sitake and Ed Lamb, who is still special teams coordinator but has moved from linebackers coach back to safeties coach, “which is his specialty,” Tuiaki said.

Of course, Lamb has also been a head coach, at Southern Utah from 2008-15. BYU might have one of the most experienced defensive staffs in all of college football.

“I am really excited about these new coaches and the way they connect with their position groups,” Sitake said. “We have been able to have some meeting time leading up to spring ball, and even before that, they have connected with their position groups. I don’t see any issues at all. It has gone really smooth, and I think the players bought in.”

Partly because they played a less-than-rugged schedule, revamped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing more powerful teams to drop them from their schedules, and partly because they had star defenders such as Khyiris Tonga, Isaiah Kaufusi, Troy Warner, Zayne Anderson, Chris Wilcox and Zac Dawe in the fold, the Cougars held opponents to just 15.3 points per game, fourth-best in the country.

They gave up just 317.4 yards per game, 119.9 rushing yards and 197.5 passing yards.

If the unit had a weakness, it was that it didn’t come up with a lot of sacks, despite forcing teams into passing situations because it usually jumped out to big leads. The Cougars finished with 2.17 sacks per game, just 65th in the country in that category.

Pressure on the quarterback often leads to turnovers; the Cougars were No. 25 in turnovers gained, with 18 (10 fumble recoveries, eight interceptions).

That’s why safeties coach Preston Hadley was moved to the newly created position of defensive ends/hybrids coach, and Tuiaki will focus on coaching the interior linemen.

“It has been good to have him there,” Tuiaki said of Hadley’s move. “He’s a smart coach, intelligent, and picking everything up quickly. He is giving us a little bit more to focus on specific position groups. … Coaching the defensive front is a lot of work, because there are a lot of guys doing different things, with all the fronts that we have. Having Preston has been huge for me and I think he has a bright future coaching the front if he wants to stay in there.”

After the coaching assignment changes were made, Tuiaki and Hadley traveled to Florida to get instruction from defensive line coaching guru Pete Jenkins, who coached the position for 54 years at the high school, college and professional levels. Jenkins is most known for his time coaching at LSU and with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL.

BYU defenders apply pressure on quarterback Baylor Romney Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Provo, Utah. The Cougars hope for an improved pass rush during the 2021 season.
BYU Photo

“All work, obviously,” Tuiaki said. “Went down to Miami, but no time for the beach.”

Defensive line coaches from Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Auburn were also there to learn from Jenkins, along with plenty of NFL defensive linemen.

“They were all from the Pete Jenkins tree,” Tuiaki said. “I consider myself a Pete Jenkins disciple as well. And now, proudly, coach Hadley can do the same.”

With Tonga, Dawe and Bracken El-Bakri moving on, Tuiaki and Hadley have a lot of teaching to do themselves; defensive line might be the most inexperienced unit on the squad in 2021, in terms of lack of starts.

“Yeah, shoot, I have got a lot of bodies, a lot of able bodies. But they are all young,” Tuiaki said. “We are replacing a bunch of starting experience. We have a lot of guys who are back with a lot of game experience, but not starter experience.”

Last year, although the aforementioned got the bulk of the starts, Tuiaki rotated players constantly, often playing as many as nine D linemen a game.

At defensive end, the top returners are Tyler Batty (injured the second half of the season) and fifth-year senior Uriah Leiataua, who graduated in April but suffered a fractured leg last season and is eager to complete “unfinished business,” he said Monday. Tuiaki said relative newcomers such as Fisher Jackson and walk-ons Hunter Greer and Blake Mangelson are having good camps.

Inside, he mentioned returned missionary John Nelson “is going to be a contributor for us as a freshman,” joining returners such as Cade Haws, Gabe Summers, Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Seleti Fevaleaki, Atunaisa Mahe, Alden Tofa and Lorenzo Fauatea, who sustained a season-ending injury in fall camp last year.

“There is so much to learn at the D-line spot,” Tuiaki said. “It is going to take some time.”