BYU’s Khyiris Tonga wants to leave for the NFL after his junior season, and coach Kalani Sitake is all for it

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune | BYU defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga (95), shown here chasing Hawaii QB Cole McDonald (13), says he will forego his senior season and leave early for the NFL draft if his upcoming junior season goes well.

Provo • Unlike his predecessor, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake has made getting his players to the National Football League one of his priorities. It is part of his recruiting pitch, part of the way he designs practices, and part of the way he manages redshirt seasons and playing time.

At BYU’s Football Media Day on Tuesday, Sitake said he wants his players to move on to the next level so much that he actually encourages them to turn professional before they exhaust their college eligibility if there are strong indications they will be drafted.

“If the timing is right, they should go [to the NFL],” he told ESPN 960 radio. “Then I would like them to return to BYU and get their degree later.”

Massive defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga — perhaps BYU’s best pro prospect — plans to do just that. Tonga, a junior from West Valley City’s Granger High, said that the 2019 season quite likely will be his final one in Provo.

“That’s the plan,” Tonga said. “That’s my mentality. That’s what I am going for right now. I am going to play every play like this is my last year in a BYU uniform. So we will see how the season goes. Hopefully, it goes well.”

At 6-foot-4 and 324 pounds, Tonga is a mountain of a man. But he has dropped about 25 pounds since the season ended last December, a season that saw him fight through injuries to start in eight of 13 games and make 30 tackles, including 4.5 for loss. He also had two sacks, broke up two passes and blocked a kick.

“It was a pretty good year, but I think I can do a lot better,” Tonga said.

That’s why he went on a strict diet and exercise regimen days after the Cougars walloped Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. His goal is to get to 319 pounds before players report for preseason training camp July 30.

“Just a lot of conditioning, a lot of lifting, eating right, little things like that,” led to the weight loss, Tonga said. “My body feels good. This is the strongest and the fastest I’ve felt since I have been here. It has made a night and day difference. The hard work is paying off.”

Tonga said he’s been taking classes this spring and summer and is on track to graduate with a degree in communications next April. If he does decide to leave early, he would likely take winter semester off in 2020 and push his graduation back a year or two.

“Either way, it is going to work out,” he said. “I’ll make my parents happy.”

Tonga said he is already getting emails and other correspondence from agents who want to represent him and is funneling all that through his parents.

“All I am worried about right now is school, football and getting ready to play Utah [in the opener],” he said. “Playing Utah first just brings more motivation to the players. It is a rivalry game, so we are excited. We are working harder than ever, working on getting faster and doing the little things more, just because it is Utah.”

Not coincidentally, Tonga originally committed to play for Utah. But when he was on his church mission in Wichita, Kan., Sitake became BYU’s coach and Tonga followed him to Provo.

“I owe a lot to coach Sitake,” Tonga said. “Ever since I was little, he’s been there for me and believed in me.”

All the way to the NFL. And maybe a year early.

Khyiris Tonga File

* Six-foot-4, 324-pound defensive tackle committed to Utah while a senior at Granger High School, but changed his mind when Kalani Sitake got the BYU coaching job

• Served a two-year church mission to Wichita, Kan.

• Started eight of 13 games in 2018 and made 30 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks

• Had two pass breakups and blocked a kick last year