There was no point of contention more heated last year than BYU's defensive line.
After splitting the first four games of the 2019 season — all against Power Five programs — BYU seemed poised to finish out the remainder of the season on a strong note. Instead, starting with being steamrolled by Washington, 45-19, the Cougars continued losing instead of recovering. And what stung more was that they were games BYU shouldn’t have lost.
At Toledo and South Florida, the Cougars led in the fourth quarter but the defense was unable to get the necessary stops to seal the wins. BYU lost both by a single score or less.
The Washington loss was almost excusable. The Huskies are a formidable opponent with a nearly impenetrable defense. But that stumble combined with the next two losses revealed a weakness on defense – one that coach Kalani Sitake took upon himself to fix.
Fast forward a year, and it can almost be certain that the BYU staff still has the defense on top of the improvement list. With the team unable to start team practices just yet, though, it is unclear how the development will translate on the field.
Senior Khyiris Tonga will look to lead the charge this year after almost leaving the program early to enter the NFL Draft.
Tonga, who was named to the 2020 Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List, which is awarded to the nation’s most outstanding defensive player, has played 39 career games with 21 starts. In 2019, he made 45 total tackles and 4.0 tackles for loss. Tonga is also on the 2020 Outland Trophy Watch List.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said, the moment Tonga decided to come back to Provo, the defensive lineman started working his butt off. That was in January, leading up to spring ball.
“He looked like a different guy,” Tuiaki said. “For me, I was really excited that he made the decision to come back because now he looks like what an NFL D-tackle should look like and he is playing with a lot more confidence in the way he is aligning and playing off things. When he was playing in practice, he was really disruptive, and that is what you want to see from someone of that caliber.”
Tonga will be a key cog. But because the defense rotates constantly, depth will be key to having a successful line. That could be provided in part by 6-3, 287-pound redshirt senior Bracken El-Bakri and 6-5, 260-pound freshman Tyler Batty.
“When you are taking blocks every single down and when you are taking on force every single down and a bunch of double-teams, it just takes a lot out of you and it’s a lot more taxing than some of the other positions so we rotate with a lot of people,” Tuiaki said. “So, the guys that end up starting are going to need good backups and it’s always good to go in with good depth especially with the type of schedule that we have. Defensive tackle-wise we feel really good about the depth and having those guys there.”
Depth will also help the Cougars alternate between their traditional four-down defense and the three-down formation they implemented while trying to shore up their defense as they moved into the middle portion of the 2019 schedule.
“I am going into my fifth year here and during my time we have primarily been a four-down defense, with a little more three-down last year than we have in the past,” Tuiaki said. “But, the elements of both are going to exist every single year just because of different schemes and different advantages you get on an opponent or different looks you get.”
That change helped BYU go on a five-game winning streak in the back half of the 2019 season. Even in the regular season finale, when BYU lost 13-3 against San Diego State, the issue wasn’t the defense.
But the defense did play a role in the Hawaii Bowl. In an all-too-similar situation, BYU led early in the fourth quarter only to allow Hawaii to score again. Unlike the Cougars, the Rainbow Warriors’ defense was able to close the game.
So, have the Cougars learned their lesson? In a few weeks, we’ll see.