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BYU linebacker room is still searching for an identity but has filled the leadership role left empty by departing Isaiah Kaufusi

Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar are expected to lead the linebackers both on and off the field.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU linebacker Keenan Pili answer questions during BYU Football Media Day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021

The BYU coaching staff has a bunch of names for its hybrid linebacker roles. Jack, Flash, Mike, Rover, Cinco, Nickel, Dime, Frodo and Joker. In all, there are a whopping 18 different defensive positions listed on the team’s post-spring depth chart.

It may be a mouthful but it all boils down to one thing.

Identity.

Since officially joining the coaching staff in February, new linebackers coach Kevin Clune has been busy shaping an identity that centers on flexibility and innovation to keep pace with the ever-changing offensive schemes.

Clune was officially hired as linebackers coach back in February, but joined the Cougar staff on a volunteer basis last year after BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe signed the Navy and Army games for the 2020 season.

Clune used his experience from Memphis, which played Navy regularly, to help the Cougars get ready for the Midshipmen’s triple-option.

BYU isn’t tapped to face a triple-option this year, but Clune is still supportive of the new hybrid roles.

“I think that will be a continuing trend in all of football,” Clune said. “As offenses continue to evolve and become more varied and dynamic, defensive players must also evolve to match the innovations.”

Not all of the hybrid linebacker positions will be used on a weekly basis. Some have some overlap and coaches will decided on a weekly basis which package will work best against the opponent at hand.

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki has a simple reason for the complexity: “Multiple defenses, multiple packages.”

The linebacker room, however, is dealing with more change than just hybrid positions.

The Cougars lost not only the biggest leader in the linebacker room but one of the biggest leaders on the team in Isaiah Kaufusi, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts in May.

But Clune isn’t worried much. The first-year coach sees Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar as the emerging leaders of the group.

While the pair aren’t super vocal in their newfound leadership roles, they set “great examples of hard work,” Clune said.

Pili said the new role was something that just came onto his shoulders.

“Obviously we had amazing leaders last year,” Pili said. “Isaiah Kaufusi, we kind of looked up to him. That mentality was just tossed down to the next level and we’re willing to step up and do what we can.”

Although the group lost one of the team’s biggest leaders, they didn’t lose much more top talent. The linebacker group returned a lot of experience.

After Pili and Wilgar, the next men up are Max Tooley and Ben Bywater and are followed by some young, slightly unproven, but promising talent like Joh Wilson, Tavita Gagnier and Drew Jensen, among others.

While Clune said the group’s identity is “definitely forming,” the new coach is focusing on building a solid foundation out of fundamentals, technique and fast, physical play.

“On that foundation, we want to strengthen and improve the mental side of the game and awareness of situational football,” Clune said. “This should lead to production and the bottom line: tackles, creating turnovers, creating stops, etc.”

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