Kalani Sitake has talked about it a lot. The BYU coach wants to create a culture in the locker rooms that translates beyond the field.
The message seems to have left an impression on multiple players, but particularly on linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi.
As a senior, Kaufusi wants to use his final season in Provo to help continue building that culture. Kaufusi has always considered himself the type of player to lead by example and hopes he is a good influence on his teammates.
“It’s different being a senior,” Kaufusi said. “When you’re a junior, you see the seniors and they realize it’s their last year. And me, I’m realizing I don’t get another shot. This is my last chance to really do what I want to do and really leave my mark on the program. So, I just try to really embody what our culture is and I try to be the best football player that I can be.”
Kaufusi has stepped into a bigger leadership role since the 2019 season came to an end, but he's not the only one.
The added leadership stems from a linebacker group that has plenty of returners, including Chaz Ah You, Zayne Anderson, Kavika Fonua, Jackson Kaufusi, Keenan Pili, Pepe Tanuvasa, Max Tooley and Payton Wilgar.
Assistant coach Ed Lamb will be looking to use his returners heavily this season.
“If those guys are not all on the field then we are not as good as we can be,” Lamb said.
With a large group of returners — and key returners — the linebackers should produce more highlight reels than last season.
In 2019, the Cougars defense snatched 15 interceptions. Of those, 10 were made by linebackers. Wilgar led the group with three interceptions.
“In particular, Payton Wilgar, he’s going to be one of the best players on our defense,” Kaufusi said. “That kid is really special.”
Kaufusi also pointed out Pili and Tanuvasa as other teammates who could have breakout performances this year.
And just as the entire team is on the older side, the same is true for the linebackers, which will result in depth. Last season, the linebacker group was one of the few to not have to deal with constant injuries and having players sidelined on a weekly basis, but could always benefit from added depth.
“We’re going to have playmakers all over the field, which is just going to be a lot easier on everyone,” Kaufusi said. “I just think, this year, we’re going to see playmaking players on the field and just a lot of plays made from every single position group. We’re all just going to be able to complement each other.”
Because spring practices were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and athletic facilities were closed until June 1, when athletes were allowed to go back for voluntary workouts, the players were left on their own to work out and stay in shape.
The training staff provided bodyweight exercises and workouts players could complete wherever they were quarantined, but also came up with personalized workouts depending on what weights or machines players were able to use.
While the majority of the team wasn't able to work out as rigorously as they might have had they stayed on campus, Kaufusi believes it allowed the team to really improve their health and avoid any injuries.
“I honestly think that this pandemic was actually a blessing for us,” Kaufusi said. “We’ve really taken it like a glass-half-full mentality and attitude, whereas, I’m sure, there are players and teams across the country that are like ‘man, this sucks.’ We’ve kind of taken the opposite of than and kind of rolled with it.”
Kaufusi is holding on to that positive mentality as the start of the 2020 season nears, even as the pandemic continues to threaten college football.
“[I] just really want to go out with a bang,” Kaufusi said. “I want to be the best BYU team in the last 10 years, and I think we have the guys to do it.”