BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki apologizes to a fan, but the Cougars offer few hints on changes

Head coach Kalani Sitake has suggested he might become more involved in defensive playcalling, but declined to discuss the idea in more detail Monday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ilaisa Tuiaki at BYU football media day in Provo on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki walked, as he always does, down from the third floor of LaVell Edwards Stadium to the Cougars’ locker room after Saturday afternoon’s game.

His defense had just allowed 52 points and 644 yards, and he walked past the screaming fans in the concourse, put his head down and tried to get to the field. He walked past the south end zone and the student section where a group of people were shouting, calling for his job.

BYU’s long-time defensive coordinator stopped near the goalpost, took a few steps toward a man yelling about the team’s defensive performance, and asked him if he wanted to suit up and make the tackles himself.

On Monday, Tuiaki offered an apology.

“Emotions are high for everybody,” he said on BYUtv. “... I thought that was unbecoming. I wanted to apologize to that gentleman. What you said was correct, I’ve got to be better.”

But days after BYU’s worst defensive performance in six years, there are no concrete answers as to how BYU will get better.

The Cougars aren’t saying how they plan to address the woes that have made them one of the worst-ranked defenses in the nation. BYU head coach Kalani Sitake on Monday acknowledged the issue but declined to lay out any concrete steps he plans to take this week after being thrashed by Arkansas on Saturday.

“I don’t think this is the platform for me to explain the accountability” for coaches, Sitake said. “It’s happening. That’s my job as a head coach, to make sure there is accountability on everybody. That everyone does their role and their role is defined.”

The head coach acknowledged there is external pressure to make changes and questioned the future of the defense as the program heads into the Big 12 next year, but didn’t discuss changes Tuiaki and the BYU defense must make. What Sitake didn’t say, and what he alluded to, will only lead to more questions this week as the Cougars prepare for a road game at Liberty.

“When you are giving up that many points and that many yards, there has to be [pressure to make a change],” Sitake said. “That is the level of accountability. There has to be pressure on all of us. That is my job as the head coach.”

When asked if he would assume play-calling duties immediately from Tuiaki, as Sitake suggested over the weekend, the head coach said he would talk to the team first before making that change.

“I’m looking at all the different options that are out there,” he said. “I think it is more important that we talk to our team first and our players. Communicate with them first before I mention it. I can go through all the changes that we have done since day one to now. You guys would get tired of it. There are some good things we can carry over. Then there are some tweaks and major changes that you can do right now. I think whatever changes we feel comfortable making, we talk to the players first and the program.”

Sitake briefly alluded to the fact that roles within the organization would change, even if he did not give specifics.

“I always talk to the players first, and whatever roles [the media] find out, so be it,” Sitake said. “For me, it is doing it in the right order.”

Tuiaki said he would support any decisions Sitake made and said the former defensive coach is “always involved” in defensive decisions.

”My job is to make him happy,” Tuiaki said. “… He’s got to step in because it’s his name on the line. When all of this is said and done, Kalani has a head coach’s record. I don’t. … So whatever he feels we need to do in order for us to be better, we’ve got to do it.

“We spoke after the game and I encouraged him … we need to do whatever your vision is, and I’ve got your back and we move forward and we roll. So if his vision is for me to clean toilets every single day and it’s going to make us win games, then you’ll see me in there giving my best efforts in whatever the smallest task is.”

The 644 yards BYU’s defense gave up Satrday were the most given up by the Cougars since 2016 against Toledo, in Tuiaki’s first season as the coordinator.

BYU’s defense is ranked 117th in the country this year by Pro Football Focus. In nearly every major category, the defense has ranked toward the bottom nationally.

Sitake on Monday seemed to question the future of the defense as BYU makes the jump to the Big 12. The last two weeks, playing Notre Dame and Arkansas consecutively, were a glimpse into what life at the Power Five level might be like. The defense in both games underperformed.

“We have been through some adversity before and BYU football will bounce back to what our identity is and what we can hang our hat on — and also what we are progressing toward,” Sitake said. “We know what is coming up in the future. We have got to get ourselves ready, and that is in a lot of different areas. Making sure we are sound, matching expectations our fans have of us. I have no problem with that. I am a fan myself too so I understand the frustration and concern from a lot of different angles.”

Tuiaki, on BYUtv’s coordinators’ corner show, indicated the need to show some growth in the final games of the season.

“It was unacceptable,” Tuiaki said of the Arkansas performance. “We have to be better. We know we have to be better. We have to work hard the next couple of weeks because the standard is high. We know we can play well but the confidence is shot a little bit. We got to get it back.”

The defense had a number of “blown coverages” against Arkansas, by Tuiaki’s own admission.

“You can go round and round about what should have been done differently, who should have been playing,” Tuiaki said. “The bottom line is we have to be better and it starts with the top and it starts with myself and the coaches. Whatever the answer is, we’ve got to find a way.”

Tuiaki’s defense has drawn the ire of fans for several seasons as the defense has not lived up to expectations. He has been Sitake’s only defensive coordinator since he got the job seven years ago.

Coming into the year, Tuiaki said he did not feel a need to make any adjustments schematically. Instead, he thought he had to change players’ positions to improve a defense that was ranked 76th in the country in 2021 — his worst unit since coming to the program.

“We’re going to ask some players to change their roles,” Sitake said on BYUtv. “We’re going to have some coaches change their roles and we have to go about it for the rest of the season.”

Recently, Tuiaki has been criticized by the fan base for the number of substitutions he makes and how little the starters are on the field. BYU’s defensive starters only play about 57% of the snaps, according to PFF. Tuiaki made the decision to do that in the beginning of the year to avoid injuries. He said he played the starters “too many” snaps in 2021.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I know people that do and I have the resources to get that done,” Sitake said about what needs to change on defense. “I’m not afraid to look for places that we need to improve on. I would like to think I know where to look.

“...There has to be pressure on all of us. That is my job as the head coach. I don’t have any problem with our fans [upset with the defense]. I don’t tell fans how to act and how to be a fan. I just really appreciate that our fans care and they love us. I want to make them all happy. If I am doing my job correctly, then they will be.”