Provo • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scout at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday afternoon went away impressed, and it wasn’t because the press box swayed as if an earthquake was happening when Wisconsin fans did their traditional “Jump Around” before the fourth quarter began.
It wasn’t because of the play of the three or four Wisconsin offensive linemen he came to watch, either, although they didn’t disappoint. Rather, the scout was intrigued by two BYU defenders who often fought off those blocks to make plays, senior linebacker Sione Takitaki and sophomore nose tackle Khyiris Tonga.
The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Tonga’s performance was especially noteworthy because he was playing hurt. Tonga had a big cast on his left hand and wrist because he sprained it earlier in the season.
“It was hard to play with only one hand,” the Granger High product said Wednesday. “But we got the job done, so it was good.”
Tonga said it was a “minor little sprain” and he doesn’t expect to need the soft cast Saturday when the No. 25 Cougars host McNeese at LaVell Edwards Stadium (4 p.m., BYUtv).
“We were just trying to be safe with it,” he said.
Through three games, Tonga and Takitaki have emerged as two of BYU’s best four defensive players, along with defensive end Corbin Kaufusi and flash linebacker Zayne Anderson. Tonga is the only non-senior in the group, but that doesn’t mean he will be back in Cougar blue next season. That’s especially true if he continues to impress NFL scouts like he did last week.
For his part, the massive lineman said he “really hasn’t thought about leaving early” because he is just starting his second season in Provo. He was genuinely humbled and surprised when told about the scout at Camp Randall.
“Here and there, I think about the NFL, but nothing big,” he said. “I have just been worrying about practice and school and the games, so far. I haven’t really worried about anything else.”
Worries about his weight, he said, have dissipated.
“I am just five pounds away,” he said. “I’ve been conditioning every day after practice, and doing extra workouts during the day when we have our free time. I’m going to get there.”
The sociology major doesn’t put up huge stats, but that’s not his role. He often occupies two blockers, or collapses the pocket with his trademark bull rush so guys such as Kaufusi, Takitaki and Butch Pau’u (who missed the Wisconsin game with a hand injury) can make plays.
“I’ve been playing OK,” Tonga said. “I can always get better. I have a lot to do. I am still working on the little things, like taking the right steps, but I am coming along. … I need to stay lower, for instance. I tend to get in a higher stance a lot. I am just working on that, and using my hands more and not just running in there.”
Tonga represents what some around the program are calling the Kalani effect.
After an injury-plagued career at Granger, he committed to Utah when BYU head coach Kalani Sitake was that school’s defensive coordinator. But when Sitake got the BYU job in 2016, word got back to Tonga on his mission and he made the decision to follow the coach to Provo.
“A lot of it had to do with my family,” Tonga said. “Coach Kalani played a huge role helping me out with a lot of things in life. I was determined to follow him where ever I went. I was super surprised when they told me he was going to BYU. So I prayed about it and things happened and I ended up here in Provo.”
“His upside is tremendous. He has a ways to go, as far as understanding the game. He came off a mission, played right away, then missed spring because of back surgery. He still needs to get more football under his belt,” Tuiaki said. “But as far as an upside goes, he’s big, strong, physical and explosive. He could be one of the greats, I think.”
Obviously, the Cougars are hoping he becomes a great at BYU, and not just in the NFL.
Khyiris Tonga file
• Six-foot-4, 340-pound defensive lineman committed to Utah while a senior at Granger High School, but changed his mind after a church mission to Wichita, Kan.
• Appeared in all 13 games for BYU in 2017 and made 19 tackles, two sacks and four tackles for loss
• Has made seven tackles and two pass breakups in BYU’s three games to date in 2018