Provo • BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s style is understated and reserved. Rarely does the former Oregon State, Utah and Utah State assistant coach gush over players, or add to the hype when asked about a specific player’s talent and capability.
So it was more noteworthy than usual when the third-year DC, who is also BYU’s defensive line coach, raved about the potential of sophomore defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga after Friday’s preseason training camp practice.
“Khyiris is a really good player,” Tuiaki said. “If he can get his weight down, he will be even better. Right now he is a little bit heavy. If we can get him to where he needs to be and he stays there, he is a game-changer. I think he is a difference-maker.”
Tonga is listed at 6-foot-4, 340 pounds on the preseason camp roster. A late addition to the 2017 roster after serving a church mission in Kansas, Tonga made an immediate impact in 2017 and was arguably the second-best defensive player on the team behind Fred Warner.
Tonga appeared in 13 games and made 19 tackles, including four for losses. He had two sacks. The Granger High product should be a mainstay on BYU’s defensive line this season.
It is a defensive line that is “looking good” at camp, Tuiaki said. But he reserved more judgement until he sees what it can do with pads on. The Cougars were padded up Saturday, but the practice was not open to the media.
“Right now, it’s fake football,” Tuiaki said.
This is the second installment in an occasional series about BYU’s position groups. Today: the defensive line.
It is a fairly experienced unit that lost just three players from 2017. Interior linemen Handsome Tanielu and Kesni Tausinga exhausted their eligibility and Solomone Wolfgramm left the program.
Led by starters Tonga, Corbin Kaufusi and Trajan Pili, seven letter winners return on the defensive line. An eighth, sophomore Langi Tuifua, is experiencing difficulties with his back and is not participating in preseason camp.
The other returners who made an impact in 2017 are Bracken El Bakri, Tevita Mo’unga, Merrill Taliauli and Uriah Leiataua.
They are joined by Lorenzo Fauatea, who was granted a medical hardship and is still classified as a freshman. West Jordan product Alden Tofa and Keanu Saleapaga of Lakewood, Calif., both redshirted last year and should add depth.
“We have a depth chart that we roll through, and it will be changing, at least through the first two weeks of camp,” Tuiaki said, declining to name starters this early in workouts. “A lot of younger guys took the majority of the reps [Friday]. We held some guys out just so we could get some of the young guys caught up.”
Other defensive linemen on the preseason camp roster include sophomore Zac Dawe, redshirt freshmen Earl Tuioti-Mariner and Motekiai Langi, freshmen Michael Bruno, Devin Kaufusi and Atunaisa Mahe and redshirt sophomore Wayne Tei-Kirby.
It is early, but Leiataua and Saleapaga are having strong camps. Both have made disruptive plays in the open portions of practices. Leiataua is pushing Pili for the starting outside edge rusher position and Saleapaga is among three or four defensive tackles who are vying to line up beside Tonga. The others are Fauatea, Tei-Kirby and Mo’unga, although Mo’unga is not participating in camp yet.