Provo • As the plane ascended into the dreary Shreveport, La., night late last December — fresh off of UAB running all over BYU to the tune of 233 yards and a bowl game defeat — Cougars defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki parked himself under the dim lights and went looking for answers.
This wasn’t the first time his defense couldn’t seem to get off the field on third down. It wasn’t the first time that his defensive line struggled to stop the run. But this might have been the most egregious example of it.
Nevermind injuries or the letdown of missing out on a bigger bowl game, a team that had shuttered its doors to the football program just a few years ago had just run the ball down BYU’s throats. After nine third-down conversions, and 183 rushing yards from DeWayne McBride, UAB piled up 31 points to spoil BYU’s 10-win season.
“We have to evaluate everything,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said that night, lamenting a loss that seemed to compound all of the issues of BYU’s defense.
But on the plane ride back to Provo, Tuiaki knew the answers would rest with him. BYU’s defensive coordinator since 2016 needed to find a way where BYU didn’t rank 73rd in the country in rushing defense.
And so in the weeks after, Tuiaki went back to where he always goes when he needs guidance: film of BYU’s 2017 loss to Wisconsin. That day, BYU was also overpowered in the rushing game. It gave up 235 yards rushing in a 40-16 loss. A year later, BYU played Wisconsin again and won 24-21.
“[I] went back to that,” Tuiaki said. “We didn’t change much of the game plan [from year to year]. It was just certain personal groups and guys in certain spots.
“The first year we played them, Sione Takitaki was playing defensive end. The next year we moved him to middle backer. So it is just getting bigger at certain positions. And getting the guys in the right positions will be what we need this year [too].”
This offseason, Tuiaki has spent much of his time trying to apply those lessons to this defense. He insists the key to improvement isn’t schematic changes or an overhaul of the defense. Instead, he is hinging this year’s success on mixing and matching players to the right spots.
He understands the pressure that comes with this season. The offense is loaded with proven talent. Quarterback Jaren Hall is an NFL prospect. The team returns 85% of its production — the most in the country. The one glaring weakness of this group is the run defense, and Tuiaki doesn’t want to be the reason BYU is not able to capitalize on this opportunity.
“There is always pressure,” Tuiaki said. “The pressure is we have a good team. There is no doubt we have a good team. We just have to put guys in the right position to win games.”
So far, there have been a number of position changes on the defensive side. Pepe Tanuvasa has moved from defensive end to linebacker. Micah Harper has moved from cornerback to safety. Like the Takitaki move in 2018, it makes the defense bigger at both positions.
BYU allowed almost 158 rushing yards per game last year and over 4.3 yards per carry. It ranked outside the top 50 in scoring defense for the first time since Sitake took over, making it the worst defense in the Tuiaki era.
There were games BYU simply lost because the defense couldn’t get off the field. There was a lack of pressure on the quarterback, with a seventh straight season without a 10-sack rusher. That did not help the run defense either.
“I think going into this year, it comes down to assignment sound football,” defensive end Tyler Batty said when asked what needs to change. “Guys being where they are supposed to be and just making a tackle.”
It is hard to dismiss the injuries that factored into the defense’s performance last year. Linebacker Keenan Pili was hurt early in the year. Once linebacker Payton Wilgar also went down, the defense struggled even more. On Oct. 30, the Cougars gave up 49 points to a six-win Virginia team — a game BYU won thanks to its offense.
There is an argument to be made that the defense would have held up last year if it stayed healthy. It held up well the first three weeks of the year against Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. All three teams were held under 18 points, a far cry from the average 24.8 allowed points per game that it ended the season on.
Still, it is hard to completely discount last year as an aberration. Changes, Tuiaki said, had to be made.
“[I learned] you can’t play so many snaps with your starters,” Tuiaki said. “Or else you will start to lose guys. I think we are at a point right now where we see that, we know that and we have to be smart.”
This year will be a test of Tuiaki’s defense. The coaches say the defense is deeper, meaning injuries should be of lesser impact. The coaches say BYU got bigger at certain positions, meaning the running game should be better.
But it really comes down to Tuiaki’s gamble. The strategy worked for him against Wisconsin. Will it pay off for him in 2022?