BYU’s defensive line has talent, but is on the green side, with little game experience

The Cougars lost key starters Khyiris Tonga, Zac Dawe and Bracken El-Bakri. Now, most of the linemen are sophomores and freshmen.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki at the school's annual spring football scrimmage in Provo, Saturday March 25, 2017.

Just like the offensive line, BYU’s defensive line took a big lost a lot of big talent to their starting positions. But unlike their counterpart, the defensive line doesn’t have a lot of proven talent to fill those spots.

Defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki knows it will be a tall order to replace big guns Khyiris Tonga, Bracken El-Bakri and Zac Daw. But he expects the younger guys in the group to step up.

The Cougars’ defensive line also suffered more injuries than normal over the 2020 season, preventing a good chunk of what is now returning talent to gain more game-time experience.

“There’s a lot of young players that are unproven, that don’t have a lot of playing time, that are going to have to step up,” Tuiaki said.

The face of BYU’s defensive line last year was Tonga. At 6-foot-4 and 321 pounds, Tonga was a formidable nose tackle for the Cougars. Now, he’s vying for a starting job with the Chicago Bears. Deefensive end Zac Dawe signed a free agency contract with the Atlanta Falcons and defensive tackle El-Bakri, who declared for the NFL draft but wasn’t selected or signed a free agency contract, is still trying to find a team.

Besides one senior and three juniors on the current roster, Tuiaki has 17 freshman and sophomores.

Among those youngsters are some promising players, such as Tyler Batty and Gabe Summers.

So, what is Tuiaki focusing on during the offseason? As he prepares to enter his sixth season at BYU, Tuiaki said there’s too much that goes into each season for there to be just one focus.

Right now, part of what he’s working on is technique and understanding of the game, particularly with the younger players.

“Technically, we’ve got to be really sound and it’s just hard to give anybody experience without having game-time experience,” Tuiaki said. “So, that’ll be something that’ll be something that will have to come as we play our games.”

During the 2020 season, the BYU defense held opponents to 15.3 points per game, showing the most success throughout the season against the run. But the line would give up a the occasional large-chunk play.

In the season opener at Navy, the Cougar defense held the Midshipmen to 119 yards — 64 of those yards came on two 30-plus rushing plays. Midway through the season, Texas State was able to run away with a 34-yard rushing play.

“It’s about being sound,” Tuiaki said. “The kids being assignment sound, as well, and being technically sound in order to get the shape of our defense pretty stout. I think, if we can do that, we’ll be able to hold opponents to what it was.”

Of course, Tuiaki said the focus on the defensive line can differ from what the Cougars practice to what their opponents prefer to play. Right now, the defensive line is just going up against its own offensive line. Most recently, the BYU offense has focused slightly more on the passing game.

But Tuiaki said his focus will be on points per game because that will be a key indicator of how successful the defense is.

As a top 10 total defense last year, BYU ranked No. 4 in scoring defense. The Cougars allowed an average of 15.33 points per game.

“Holding score down has been important to us,” Tuiaki said. " And all of the other statistics that come along with it, if we can have those on par as well … but the goal is always points per game. So, that’ll be the emphasis.”