Provo • As Sione Takitaki draws rave reviews for his familiar relentless style of play and fanatical effort at the Cleveland Browns’ training camp this month, BYU football coaches have started the search in earnest for the middle linebacker’s replacement in Provo.
It could take awhile.
“You just don’t replace a guy like that,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said during June’s media day. “They don’t grow on trees.”
Middle linebacker — or Mike linebacker, as they call it — is an incredibly important position in head coach Kalani Sitake’s 4-3 defensive scheme, and the Mike is more often than not the leading tackler on the team. Standouts such as Cameron Jensen, Brandon Ogletree, Uani Unga, Harvey Langi and Butch Pau’u (before a string of injuries) have manned the spot in recent years.
Coaches made a surprise move when camp opened Wednesday, moving oft-injured running back Kavika Fonua over to defense and saying he’s already in the mix in the middle. Linebackers coach Ed Lamb said Fonua and redshirt freshmen Payton Wilgar and Jackson Kaufusi are “the top three guys right now competing for that spot.”
BYU’S STARTING MLB CANDIDATES
• Jackson Kaufusi, Redshirt Freshman, 6-2, 224
• Kavika Fonua, Redshirt Junior, 6-0, 205
• Payton Wilgar, Redshirt Freshman, 6-3, 235
• Max Tooley, Redshirt Freshman, 6-2, 225
Kaufusi and another redshirt freshman, Max Tooley, were listed as the potential starters after spring practice, with true freshman Alex Miskela also making the depth chart published in the media guide. That’s partly because Wilgar, who is from St. George’s Dixie High, didn’t participate in spring drills.
“In 2016, [Fonua] was one of the leading tacklers on the team, playing mostly special teams,” Lamb said. “He is a veteran defender and we moved him up to the top of the depth chart, although I told those three guys — at least the first day — that those three are all [considered] starters and we will mix that up going forward.”
Sitake said the Cougars are suddenly deep at running back with graduate transfers Emmanuel Esukpa and Ty’Son Williams pushing sophomore Lopini Katoa for playing time so coaches agreed to move Fonua to linebacker.
“He has played safety and linebacker,” Sitake said. With his speed and his ability to cover a lot of ground, I think he can help us there. He has some experience playing the game, so it is not like it will be brand new for him being out on the field.”
Wilgar appeared in three games last year without making a tackle, while Kaufusi made one in four games.
A pair of linebackers who missed spring camp due to injury — senior Zayne Anderson and junior Isaiah Kaufusi — have been penciled in as the starters at flash and weakside linebacker. Anderson said despite the inexperience it will all work out because the players trust the coaches to make the right decision.
“I think Kavika moving over, that’s a good move,” said Anderson, who has made 73 career tackles. “All those guys are battling for that position right now. So are the guys behind them. It is kind of a position that is open right now and we’ve got some good talent right there. I feel confident with all those guys.”
Lamb said he’s got 15 players in camp for the three starting linebacker positions.
“So we have a true five-deep and I really think it is realistic that the fourth and fifth guys could end up being the second guy, assuming Zayne and Isaiah work hard and protect their position and keep the job they have," he said.
Former linebacker Hirkley Latu has moved to defensive end, while former West High star AJ Lolohea, a transfer from Weber State, is no longer on the roster.
Remaining linebackers include Chaz Ah You, Sam Baldwin, Ben Bywater, Matthew Criddle, Solofa Funa, Drew Jensen, Tooley, Miskela, Keenan Pili, Kade Pupunu and a newcomer, Navy transfer Pepe Tanuvasa.