Provo • Remember how BYU’s 2017 linebacking corps was supposed to be one of the best in school history?
Well, bow linebacker Francis Bernard decided to redshirt a week before the opener and eventually asked for his release from the program; hard-hitting middle linebacker Butch Pau’u battled injuries for the second straight season and seemed to wear down later in the year. Only flash linebacker Fred Warner lived up to expectations, and the four-year starter likely will be the only Cougar selected in the NFL Draft later this month.
The 2018 crew of linebackers enters the season of redemption, or so the Cougars hope, with lower expectations but plenty of promise, coach Kalani Sitake said Monday.
Speedy senior Zayne Anderson has been moved from safety to Warner’s old spot, Pau’u finally is healthy and energized after being challenged to become more of a leader, and defensive end Sione Takitaki is the projected starter at bow, the outside linebacker spot opposite the flash in defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s system.
Injuries have sidelined three expected contributors in spring camp — seniors Matt Hadley and Morgan Unga and junior Johnny “Ku-J” Tapusoa — but all three should be back this fall, provided Hadley is granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA.
Linebackers coach Ed Lamb said a few other linebackers have game experience and could see extensive playing time.
“Adam Pulsipher is really versatile because he is so intelligent and he handles his preparation really well. So he could play all three of the linebacker positions and has done that this spring,” Lamb said. “Riggs Powell has played sparingly on the special teams, but I think he will play a big role this year in the two deep. Then Isaiah Kaufusi, he has grown considerably since last fall.”
Lamb said freshmen Christian Polau and AJ Lolohea also have shown a lot of potential.
“Those two could be really, really good players here in the future,” he said.
Filling Warner’s shoes at flash won’t be easy, especially because Anderson is new to the position, but Morgan Unga is “close to getting back” and did well there backing up Warner last season, Lamb said.
“I feel really good about Zayne playing that flash,” Sitake said. “His speed is something we need, and it is not a huge dropoff from him to Fred. Fred was a little bit bigger and had a little bit more of a physical game. That’s what Zayne has worked on all spring.”
Sitake said Anderson is fearless.
“When you have a guy that is tough, that is willing to throw his body into the play and has tons of speed, it will work out for you,” he said.
Lamb said Pau’u is “heavy enough” at 235 pounds to be stout in the middle this year and can’t get any heavier due to his 6-foot frame.
“He’s power packed. He’s one of the strongest players on the team,” Lamb said. “He is right where he needs to be. He is really solid. His body fat percentage is really low. He’s done a great job this offseason.”
Lamb said Pau’u and Takitaki are “game ready” and haven’t been used a lot this spring, which is one of the reasons the offense often has gotten the upper hand in scrimmages. Sitake concurred.
“Sione has done a great job at the bow position, and all those guys have tons of speed. They can funnel the ball into Butch and Pulsipher inside,” Sitake said. “And I have been really impressed with Isaiah Kaufusi and AJ Lolohea stepping up at bow, and the progress we are seeing from Riggs Powell at the flash. Guys are starting to emerge, and our two deep at linebacker is starting to pan out a little bit more. I feel really good about the depth and the playmaking ability of those guys.”
LINEBACKERS ON BYU’S 2018 SPRING ROSTER
• Zayne Anderson, Sr.
• Christian Folau, Fr.
• Matthew Hadley, Sr.
• Jeremiah Ieremia, Fr.
• Isaiah Kaufusi, Soph.
• Hirkley Latu, Fr.
• AJ Lolohea, Fr.
• Butch Pau’u, Sr.
• Riggs Powell, Sr.
• Adam Pulsipher, Sr.
• Nate Sampson, Sr.
• Rhett Sandlin, Sr.
• Will Sedgwick, Fr.
• Sione Takitaki, Sr.
• Johnny Tapusoa, Jr.
• Colin Tompson, Soph.
• Morgan Unga, Sr.
• Martin Barre, Jr.
Note: Latu, Tapusoa and Unga are injured and not participating in contact drills and scrimmages