BYU’s defense might be even better than last year if some injured stars get healthy

Cougars lost about six starters to graduation, but standouts such as Zayne Anderson, Khyiris Tonga and Dayan Ghanwoloku return

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) is pushed out of bounds by Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Zayne Anderson (23) just short of the end zone as BYU hosts Utah, NCAA football in Provo, Saturday September 9, 2017.

Provo • A half-dozen or so frontline players from BYU’s defense in 2018, a defense that ranked 18th in the country in fewest yards allowed, won’t be back for the 2019 season.

Linebacker Sione Takitaki, cornerback Michael Shelton and defensive end Corbin Kaufusi are doing all they can to be selected in the NFL draft, while defensive tackle Merrill Taliauli and linebackers Butch Pau’u and Tanner Jacobson are presumably finished with football because they didn’t participate in Pro Day last Friday.

The Cougars’ goal is to repeat that defensive success this year and perhaps be a little more disruptive, coach Kalani Sitake said as spring practices wrapped up last week. But it won’t be easy.

“I like our defense. I think we have a chance to be pretty good,” Sitake said. “We’ve got to get some guys healthy, and we’re always trying to improve our depth, but I like what I’ve seen so far.”


• Probable starting linebackers Zayne Anderson (shoulder) and Isaiah Kaufusi (ankle) and likely starting defensive backs Austin Lee (shoulder) and Chris Wilcox (knee) had offseason surgery and missed spring practices

• With the aforementioned sitting out, along with defensive linemen Khyiris Tonga and Lorenzo Fauatea and safety Dayan Ghanwoloku, the defense gets dominated in the spring scrimmage

• Trajan Pili, a starting defensive end in 2018, gets some reps at middle linebacker, while junior Zac Dawe emerges as a possible full-time starter at defensive tackle

Sitake wasn’t that bullish on the defense after it was riddled by the offense in the spring scrimmage on March 23, but quickly noted that returning starters such as defensive tackles Khyiris Tonga, Lorenzo Fauatea and Devin Kaufusi and safety Dayan Ghanwoloku only played briefly, if at all.

“We had to kind of baptize those young linebackers by fire, to show them what it is going to be like,” he said.

The offense also held out some starters that day, but not along the offensive line. When the five probable starting offensive linemen were on the field, they moved through the defense quite easily.

“Our first unit, I would gave them a B-minus, probably just because of the expectation I have for them,” said new OL coach Eric Mateos. “The second unit did not do well. I give them D-plus.”

Fourth-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said bettering last year’s numbers will take getting key guys healthy and younger guys experience as quickly as possible. The Cougars were also 24th in scoring defense (21.4 ppg.), No. 27 in rushing defense (130.1 ypg.) and No. 29 in passing yards allowed (194.0 ypg.).

“We definitely feel like we should have done better, and there are a lot of technical things to fix from the scrimmage,” Tuiaki said. “But the offense just did a better job that day.”

The defense was also missing four 2018 starters hoping to return from offseason surgery. Flash linebacker Zayne Anderson (shoulder), boundary linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi (ankle), free safety Austin Lee (shoulder) and cornerback Chris Wilcox (knee) all sat out of spring practices.

“Us having all these injuries is going to turn out to be a blessing in disguise come fall because a lot of young guys got a ton of reps this spring,” said Anderson, who tore his labrum in the first game, against Arizona, then played in three more games before deciding to have shoulder surgery last October.

Lee, another rising senior, agreed.

“Coaches have really emphasized getting younger players game-ready this spring,” said the former Alta High standout and Utah transfer.

Tuiaki has installed a few defensive wrinkles, such as having defensive end Trajan Pili slide over to middle linebacker for selected plays.

“Some of it is having more experience out there, a guy who has been in the battles,” Tuiaki said. “We know he is not going to flinch. But it is also about letting those young guys know that there is somebody in there to push them. We want them to feel like somebody is out there breathing down their neck.”

Tuiaki said the rapid improvement of junior defensive tackle Zac Dawe has enabled coaches to move Pili around a little bit. He also said returned missionary Chaz Ah You and walk-on linebacker Matthew Criddle have had outstanding practices the past few weeks. Ah You is currently ticketed to back up Anderson at field, or flash, linebacker. But the former four-star recruit is getting cross-trained in other positions in an effort to get the 11 best defenders on the field.