Provo • BYU’s two-deep chart at linebacker before the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last December included six names: Sione Takitaki and Butch Pau’u in the middle, Rhett Sandlin and Adam Pulsipher at boundary and Tanner Jacobson and Riggs Powell at field.
All six were seniors.
At first glance, the cupboard at what is traditionally one of BYU’s strengths looks empty for linebackers coach Ed Lamb.
“That’s true,” the Cougars assistant head coach said during the last week of spring practices. “We’re really concerned about inexperience at the linebacker positions. And that’s always a scary position to be in as a coach.”
Two players who had earned starting spots during parts of the 2018 season, field linebacker Zayne Anderson and boundary linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, were injured and missed the bowl game. Hence, they weren’t on the depth chart when the season ended.
Both missed spring practices, but are expected to be back when preseason training camp opens in late July.
Anderson, who got an additional year of eligibility because he only played in four games last year, underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his shoulder in the middle of October, while Kaufusi had surgery to repair some torn ankle ligaments shortly after he sustained an injury in the Nov. 24 game at Utah.
“If we had a game this week, Isaiah would prepare and then play,” Lamb said March 25. “We are just being cautious because he hasn’t been back training full speed. He was just now released to play, so we feel really good about him.”
Anderson, the 215-pound speedster from Stansbury Park, will be classified as a redshirt senior and is the only senior linebacker on the roster. He said he tore his labrum in the opener at Arizona, but played through the pain against Cal and Wisconsin. He missed the Washington and McNeese State games, then decided to get the surgery after playing against Utah State.
“I will be 100 percent soon,” he said. “Maybe I could have played some in spring ball, gotten a taste of full contact and everything, but we were being safe. I will be completely good to go this summer.”
Kaufusi, a Brighton High product, finished with 50 tackles last year and will be a junior this season.
“We’re going to count on some young guys [at linebacker], but we feel really good about Zayne and Isaiah returning,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We’ve asked those guys who were injured to stay involved this spring, teaching and mentoring the young guys, and those two have done that.”
One of those young guys is Jackson Kaufusi, Isaiah’s younger brother. Jackson redshirted last year after returning from a church mission to Australia and is the heir apparent to Takitaki’s starting spot at middle linebacker.
“We have a lot of young talent, and it is my job to find the guys that will perform well in the games,” Lamb said, noting that middle linebacker in BYU’s 4-3 system “is probably the position that is the least settled.”
Lamb said redshirt freshmen Keenan Pili and Max Tooley and true freshman Alex Miskela are also in the mix for the starting spot.
Another option in the middle is defensive lineman Trajan Pili, a 6-2, 260-pound senior who got some reps there in the spring scrimmage.
“Some of it is having more experience out there, a guy who has been in the battles,” said defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. “We know [Trajan Pili] is not going to flinch. But it is also about letting those young guys know that there is somebody in there to push them. … Trajan played a little bit of it last year in some of our stuff, so we are kinda putting him out there to see him, give him that experience.”
Anderson’s backup at the field LB spot, sometimes called the “flash,” is sophomore returned missionary Chaz Ah You, a converted safety.
Isaiah Kaufusi’s backup at boundary, sometimes called the “bo,” is either Tooley or AJ Lolohea, a West High product who shined in the spring scrimmage.
BYU’s projected linebackers in 2019
Flash (field) — Zayne Anderson, Sr., 6-2, 210 or Chaz Ah You, So., 6-2, 205
Mike (middle) — Jackson Kaufusi, Fr., 6-2, 220 or Keenan Pili, Fr., 6-3, 217
Bo (boundary) — Isaiah Kaufusi, Jr., 6-2, 210 or Max Tooley, Fr., 6-2, 222
Note: Other linebackers with a chance to crack the two-deep include Alex Miskela, Hirkley Latu, Matt Criddle, Drew Jensen, Payton Wilgar and AJ Lolohea.