8 years after signing with BYU, Earl Tuioti-Mariner now tells the story of the Cougars’ defensive line

BYU’s line is made up of journeyman looking for their breakthrough. Now the program is hoping it will be rewarded for giving multiple chances

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Earl Tuioli-Mariner talks to the media after day 1 of BYU football Fall Camp, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

Provo • Earl Tuioti-Mariner never thought it would get to this point.

When he first committed to BYU back in 2014 — on the same day as Fred Warner and Devon Blackman — Tuioti-Mariner figured his football career would be long over by now.

He’d told himself each of the last two seasons would be his last. But then came two shoulder surgeries and a disappointing COVID year, and the draw of putting together one healthy, competitive season kept bringing him back to football.

So while Warner left for the NFL for four years and Blackman now runs his own business, Tuioti-Mariner is going through his sixth fall camp as a college football player — still on his own quest to leave Provo with a truly successful season to his name.

“Never thought I would be here in 2022,” Tuioti-Mariner said, who has logged 42 games with only three sacks. “I just want to play one 100% healthy season and play to my potential. Finally make plays, do my job and do it reliably.”

This season means a lot for Tuioti-Mariner, yes. But his journeyman story speaks to the entirety of BYU’s defensive line this season.

The group BYU has put together to put pressure on the quarterback is older and each is still looking for individual success stories. There is no one proven force on the line, evidenced by the fact that BYU hasn’t produced a 10-sack rusher since 2015.

All of them are going through some version of Tuioti-Mariner’s story. There is Tyler Batty, a third-year player who will start this season. He has spent the better part of his career battling injuries and only has seven sacks to show for his career.

There is Alden Tofa, another sixth-year player who has no sacks in 35 career games.

And then there are a mix of veteran players who have battled their own injuries. Sixth-year senior Lorenzo Fauatea, fifth-year senior Gabe Summers and fifth-year junior Alema Pilimai have a combined two sacks in 71 games.

“We have a lot to prove,” defensive ends coach Preston Hadley said. “All the guys know we weren’t good enough [in years past]. Consistently we need to be better. I think with all the experience, we have a lot of really good players. But still a lot to prove.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Aggies quarterback Logan Bonner (1) is pressured by Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Earl Tuioti-Mariner (91) as the Utah State Aggies host Brigham Young University Cougars at Maverik Stadium Oct. 1, 2021. The Cougars attempt a second straight win for the Wagon Wheel, the trophy of the in-state rivalry, while the Aggies will try to recapture the trophy.

Nobody has embodied the long toiling process more than Tuioti-Mariner. During his freshman season, he tore his left shoulder. He played the next two years without undergoing surgery, trying to fill in the gaps where he could. He appeared in 19 games but was limited to 13 tackles and no sacks.

In his sophomore year, he tore his right shoulder and was told he needed to shut it down. When he came back, BYU went through the COVID year. And last season, in 2021, Tuioti-Mariner played in every game but still felt his shoulders popping out on most plays. It resulted in another season of mostly hollow results.

“My plan was to call it quits after that,” Tuioti-Mariner said. “After reflection, I just felt I had one more season. I had a sour taste in my mouth.”

BYU’s success this season may hinge on journeymen players like Tuioti-Mariner finally putting it together.

The defensive line has been a liability for the group the last several years. In 2021, it gave up an average of 156 rushing yards a game and failed to put any consistent pressure on the quarterback. It resulted in BYU giving up nearly 25 points per game and ranked No. 74 in the country.

If it does work out this season, BYU will have a story to tell about perseverance — and nobody will be happier than Tuioti-Mariner.

“I finally feel good,” Tuioti-Mariner said. “We are as deep as we have ever been. I think it will be a better season than last year.”