Provo • BYU’s pass rush was one of the worst in the country last season, ranking 115th out of 129 schools in total sacks, with 17. The Cougars also had just 11 quarterback hurries, which isn’t an official NCAA stat, but is pretty pathetic, nevertheless.
Naturally, BYU took one of its best pass rushers from the woeful 4-9 season — rising senior Sione Takitaki — and made him a linebacker.
But coach Kalani Sitake, who developed a reputation at Utah for producing prolific pass-rushers and sack records, is telling BYU fans not to fear. The sack will be back in BYU’s 2018 defensive repertoire, he insists.
“We have capable coaches who have led the country in sacks before, so I think we have to go back to that stuff and we will be all right,” Sitake said.
Redshirt junior Trajan Pili, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, will likely replace Takitaki at outside end, after recording just one sack last year as a backup. But Sitake says the Cougars will return to their sack-happy ways in 2016, when they had 29 in his first season and were among the nation’s leaders in forced turnovers.
Redshirt sophomore Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua is also pushing for time at one of the defensive end positions.
“We have two monster defensive ends and some monster defensive tackles, so if we collapse the pocket right, we will be OK,” Sitake said. “And if we have to call on pressure [from linebackers], we can do that, too. We have added a lot of that in our install. I see it getting a lot better.”
In 2016, BYU also had 13 QB hurries and grabbed 21 interceptions, which are often a function of getting pressure on the quarterback. Last season, BYU had just eight picks and quarterbacks often had all day, it seemed, to find open receivers.
“I think a lot of it is just experience in general and having a sense of urgency. We have got to be better at getting upfield and hitting our moves,” said 6-9, 275-pound defensive end Corbin Kaufusi, who led the team in sacks last year, with six.
Takitaki had five and then-freshman Khyiris Tonga had two.
Tonga, 6-4, 340, is one of those anchors in the middle that Sitake described, but he entered preseason training camp in less-than-ideal condition. Tonga, Merrill Taliauli and Tevita Mo’unga, if he returns from whatever is keeping him out of camp, are collapse-the-pocket guys in Sitake’s scheme that push QBs to the rush ends for sacks.
“Khyiris is a big-time guy,” Sitake said. “We just got to keep working on his conditioning, and working on his technique.”
Sitake also said Taliauli, redshirt freshmen Earl Tuoti-Mariner and Lorenzo Fauateau are doing good things, “but I think Khyiris has to be on the field a lot more if we want to be the type of defense we need to be and as disruptive as we want to be.”
Redshirt freshman Keanu Saleapaga and freshman returned missionary Devin Kaufusi — Corbin’s brother — are also having strong camps, but in general BYU’s offensive line is keeping rushers out of the backfield in camp. Even whistle sacks, as they are called when defenders get close to green-shirted quarterbacks off limits to contact, have been few and far between.
Quarterbacks don’t face many blitzes in preseason camp.
“If you have to rely on your blitzing package to cause some pass rush disruption, then yeah, you probably need to get four different defensive linemen,” Sitake said.
The Cougars were counting on sophomore outside end Langi Tuifua, the former four-star recruit, to improve their pass rush after he showed plenty of promise in a limited role last year. But the Bingham High product is nursing an ailing back and is not in camp.
Pili, who is battling Leiataua, Devin Kaufusi and junior walk-on Bracken El-Bakri for the starting OE spot, said “hands down” the pass rush will be better this season.
“That’s been the focus for all of us this offseason, is just getting sacks,” Pili said. “That’s a huge stat in football, probably the most important other than turnovers.”
BYU’S 2017 SACK LEADERS
6 • Corbin Kaufusi
5 • Sione Takitaki
2 • Khyiris Tonga
1 • Fred Warner, Grant Jones, Trajan Pili, Morgan Unga