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2018 (early) Position Preview – Defensive Line

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Pictured: Current BYU Defensive Lineman Corbin Kaufusi chases down Arizona’s QB, via vanquishthefoe.com

As the 2018 signing period comes to a close, Superbowl Sunday has concluded, and we transition to a full-fledged football off-season, I would invite you to join me for a moment of silence to lament our future football-less weekends together.

Now on to the defensive outlook for next season! We are going to start with the defensive line (DL,) including both the defensive tackles (DT) and defensive ends (DE.) For a crash course in how important a defensive line can be for a football team and partially to revel in another Superbowl where the Patriots are upset and lose, please see exhibit A: Superbowl XLII in 2008. In this game, a the undefeated Patriots; an unstoppable force with one of the most productive QB to WR connections of all time in Tom Brady to Randy Moss, met their match against a scrappy wild card team in the NY Giants. While the heroics of Eli Manning and David Tyree in the 4th Quarter will go down as one of the best sports moments of all time, it was the defensive line, consisting of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, who really made the difference in the game.

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Pictured: The Giants’ defense gets to Tom Brady in Superbowl XLII, via newyork.cbslocal.com

While not the most heralded of positions, the BYU Cougars have seen their fair share of difference-makers on the defensive line. Many of them, like Brett Keisel, Chriss Hoke, and Ziggy Ansah, would go on to have ultra-productive NFL careers. Among the stars that fans will remember are:

All-WAC alumni Rich Kaufusi, Henry Bloomfield, Lenny Gomes, Mike Morgan
All-MWC alumni Setema Gali, Byron Frisch
All-Independent Bronson Kaufusi
Honorable mention All-Americans Jim Herrmann, Brad Anae, Glen Titensor, Mekeli Ieremia (who holds the record for the most sacks in a season with 17)
All-Americans Ryan Denney, Brandon Flint (who holds the record for most sacks in a career at 33,) Randy Brock, Wayne Baker, Shawn Knight, “The Janimal” Jan Jorgensen
And 2-time All-American, 1986 Outland Trophy winner, Super Bowl champion, inspirational Jason Buck.

In 2017 BYU got some good production from their DLs against the run game. In fact, a DE makes up for one half of the top 4 tacklers on the team last year. Just as it is concerning for a safety to have a lot of tackles because it indicates that the opposing running backs were getting past the first and second level, having a DL with a lot of tackles should be a good thing because it means that opposing running backs are not getting past the first level. Additionally, as a group the DLs led the team in tackles for a loss. However, they did struggle to pressure opposing quarterbacks, as the DLs, as a group, only managed 14 sacks the entire year. (See above where Mekeli Ieremia got 17 in a single season by himself.) The group, along with the rest of the offense and defense, suffered from injuries and other ailments particularly with DTs. That said, arguably the most consistent performers on the defense last year were the DEs which return the top 2 major contributors.

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Pictured: Former BYU Defensive Lineman Jason Buck chases down the San Diego State running back, via byufootball.wikia.com

The entire BYU coaching staff has officially been announced, and Defensive Coordinator (DC) Ilaisa Tuiaki will retain his dual role as the Defensive Line coach. This will be his third year as DC & his fourth overall being a DL coach, though it will be his second with BYU. Tuiaki was also the DL coach for Utah in 2013 & 2014. In those years, Tuiaki had 2 DLS account for 26.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in a hybrid Linebacker (LB)-DL role in 2013. This production, while impressive compared to BYU in 2017, pales in comparison to 2014. From just 2 DLs under Tuiaki, they put together 34.5 tackles for loss and a whopping 28.5 sacks. That year Senior Nate Orchard tore apart the PAC-12 with 18.5 sacks by himself making him the single season sack leader at the University of Utah. He would finish his career tied at 4th in career sacks.

Unfortunately BYU did not experience similar game-changing dynamics from their offensive line in 2017, but that does not mean that there are not any dynamic playmakers. Because of injury in the center of the D-line, a number of younger players saw decent playing time and the top two performers, the DEs, return. Additionally, BYU adds some exciting newcomers to the mix and the DL group as a whole is shaping up to become one of the more exciting position groups in BYU Football. While I don’t expect many surprises as for starters, we could see some new faces take on a larger role this year as far as rotations go.

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Pictured: Current Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki coaches up current linebacker Morgan Unga, via cougarclub.com

Returning starters:

Sione Takitaki (RS SR.) In his much anticipated return to the football field, Takitaki was probably the most productive DL last year, despite being considered under-sized. He was second in the team in total tackles, behind only Fred Warner, and led the team in tackles for loss (TFL.) Takitaki had a big game against Mississippi State, but his best game probably came against Fresno State, where he had 11 total tackles and 1.5 TFL. His best games as a pass rusher were against Portland State, Utah State, and Hawaii where he got at least 1.5 sacks in each. His season statistics mark his career high in each category, though he is yet to top his single-game sack record of 2, which he got in 2015 against East Carolina then tied it in 2017 against Portland State. Out of high school, Takitaki was a 3-star recruit who was recruited by Arizona, Boise State, Nevada, San Diego State, San Jose State, Utah, Washington State, and Wisconsin.

Corbin Kaufusi (SR.) The younger brother of BYU great Bronson Kaufusi and son of seasoned former BYU coach Steve Kaufusi, Corbin stepped up his game in his Junior year, much to the expectation of fans. Corbin was fourth on the team in total tackles, behind Butch Pau’u, and led the team in sacks with 6, each recorded in separate games including against Wisconsin. In 2016, Corbin played in all 13 games but still doubled his production in nearly every category in 2017. His best game may have been against Utah, where he led the team in tackles (tied with Fred Warner,) had a TFL and forced a fumble. Corbin originally came to BYU to play on the basketball team, and was a productive member. It was only last year that Corbin transitioned to the football team.

Merrill Taliauli (SR.) As a Junior, Taliauli saw significantly more time due to injuries to the starters who were ahead of him on the depth chart. Taliauli lead the returning DTs in tackles with 27 and saw time in 12 games. His 2 most productive games were against Wisconsin and Fresno State, where he had 4 tackles in each. Taliauli did not record a TFL or a sack though he did have a few batted passes at the line.

Khyiris Tonga (SO.) Had he been able to stay healthy, Tonga had the opportunity to be the most explosive player on the entire defense! Easily the most dynamic Freshman this side of Matt Bushman on the team, Tonga clobbered his way to 19 tackles, 4 TFLs, and led the DTs with 2 sacks in 11 games of limited time. His best game came against Utah State, where he got a season high 5 tackles with 0.5 TFL and 0.5 sack tacked on. A 3-star recruit out of high school, Tonga was also recruited by Arizona State, Oklahoma, Oregon State, and Utah.

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Pictured: Current BYU Defensive Lineman Sione Takitaki wraps up Hawaii’s running back, via deseretnews.com

Returning Contributors:

Trajan Pili (RS JR.) Pili saw time primarily as a rotational player on the end. His most productive game was against Portland State, where he spent a good portion of his time in the backfield with 3 total tackles, 2 TFL, and a sack. Out of high school Pili was also recruited by Nebraska, Oregon, Stanford, and Utah.

Solomone Wolfgramm (SR.) A transfer from the BYU-Hawaii basketball program, Wolfgramm saw time in 11 games in 2017. His best game was against Wisconsin, where he recorded 3 tackles. Wolfgramm did not record any TFL or sacks.

Tevita Mo’unga (SR.) After struggling with injuries in 2016 but still managing to contribute in 7 games, Mo’unga was expected to take on a larger role last year. Unfortunately, injuries got the best of him again as he was only able to participate in 2, where he saw decent production against LSU and Utah. He recorded 0.5 TFL in each game, a testament to his explosiveness, and had 7 total tackles. In 2016 he had 14 total tackles as a rotational player but only 0.5 TFL. A 3-star recruit out of high school, Tonga was also recruited by Arizona, Baylor, Colorado, Texas Tech, Utah, Vanderbilt, Washington, and Washington State.

Langi Tuifua (SO.) Tuifua played in saw playing time in 10 games in 2017 and recorded a statistic in 6 of those, resulting in 7 total tackles. Tuifua also had 0.5 TFL against East Carolina. A 4-star recruit out of high school, Tuifua was also recruited by Arkansas, Colorado, Louisville, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, Utah, Washington, and Washington State.

Rhett Sandlin (RS SR.) In 2017 Sandlin saw playing time in all 13 games, though he only recorded a statistic in 3 of those. His best game came against LSU, where he recorded 3 tackles. Out of high school, Sandlin was recruited by Oregon State, Stanford, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

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Pictured: Current BYU Defensive Lineman Tevita Mo’unga takes up 3 UCLA Offensive Lineman while he bull-rushes their Quarterback, via twitter.com

Uriah Leiataua (SO.) In 2017, Leiataua saw playing time in 7 games, and recorded a statistic in 4 of those. His best game was against San Jose State, where he made 2 tackles. A 3-star recruit out of high school, Leiataua was among the top 3 academically in his graduating class. He was also recruited by Colorado, Colorado State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington State, Wisconsin, and Yale.

Lorenzo Fauatea (SO.) Fauatea played in only 3 games last year, with his most productive game coming against Utah State, where he recorded 3 total tackles and 0.5 TFL. A 3-star recruit out of high school, Fauatea was also recruited by Oregon State and Utah.

Motekiai Langi (SO.) The enormous Langi had his first official year of football in 2017 and saw playing time in 4 games on special teams. Perhaps no other player brings with them as much intrigue as “Mount Langi.”

Kamalani Kaluhiokalani (RS SR.) Kaluhiokalani did not play in any games in 2017, but participated on the scout team.

Cody Savage (JR.) Savage did not play in any games in 2017, but participated on the scout team.

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Picutred: Current BYU Defensive Lineman, Mo Langi, learns the ropes during 2017 Spring Camp, via heraldextra.com

New Faces:

Wayne Tei-Kirby (Transfer – RS SO) A former Oregon Duck who had to sit out 2017 due to transfer rules, Tei-Kirby was a 3-star recruit who held scholarship offers from Army, Oregon, Utah, and Washington State. He was also recruited by Boise State, Nevada, UNLV, Utah State and Washington.

AJ Lolohea (Transfer – RS FR.) A Weber State transfer, Lolohea was a 2-star recruit out of high school and had to sit out a year.

Keanu Saleapaga (RS FR.) A 3-star prospect out of high school, Saleapaga was a one-time USC commit, who also held scholarship offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, Colorado, Memphis, Oregon State, Pitt, and Texas Tech.

Alden Tofa (RS FR.) A 3-star recruit out of high school, Tofa held scholarship offers from Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, UNLV, Utah, Vanderbilt, and Washington State. He was also recruited by Arizona State and Washington.

Earl Tuioti-Mariner (RS FR.) Tuioti-Mariner got some buzz in Spring camp before being redshirted, and will likely be back in the thick of things.

Tanner Baker (RS FR.) A 2-star recruit out of high school, Baker had received scholarship offers from Ball State and Navy, and was also recruited by Utah State, Virginia, and Wake Forest.

Freddy Livai (RM FR.) A 3-star recruit out of high school, Livai received scholarship offers from Arizona State, Boise State, Colorado, Colorado State, Oregon State, and UNLV.

Devin Kaufusi (RM FR.) The younger brother of Bronson and Corbin Kaufusi, Devin was a 3-star recruit out of high school. Blessed with the same genetics as his brothers, Devin is tall, standing at 6’7″ – the same height as Bronson. He did not receive any attention from any other schools because it would have been a waste of their time to even try and take him away from BYU. God bless Steve & Michelle Kaufusi.

Darius Mcfarland (RM FR.) A 3-star recruit out of high school, Mcfarland returns from a mission in Washington D.C. He had received scholarship offers from Army and Wyoming.

David Lui (RM FR.) A 3-star recruit out of high school, Lui received a scholarship offer from Hawaii and was also recruited by Cal, UCLA, Utah, and Washington State.

Solofa Funa (RM FR.) A 3-star recruit out of high school, Funa was also recruited by Boise State, Nevada, Oregon State, and Utah State.

Chinonso Opara (New Recruit) The shades of Ziggy Ansah will put a heavy weight on Opara. The 6’9″ Nigerian was also offered a scholarship by Utah.

 

For more information about the newest recruits, I encourage you to visit:

https://www.deseretnews.com/article/765696965/BYU-football-2018-recruiting-class-live-updates-video.html

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Pictured: New BYU recruit Chinonso Opara poses with Kalani Sitake after committing to the Cougars, via scout.com

Key Loses:

Handsome Tanielu

Kesni Tausinga

 

Notes:

  • Many project Sione Takitaki to transition to linebacker in 2018. Since there has not been any official declaration of such, we will continue to assume he will return as a defensive lineman.
  • Kainoa Fuiava has transferred from BYU after choosing BYU over Hawaii on signing day in 2016.

 

Projected depth chart:
(compare to https://www.loyalcougars.com/football-roster/depth-chart/)

RE 1 – Sione Takitaki
RE 2 – Trajan Pili
RE 3 – Rhett Sandlin

DT 1 – Merrill Taliauli
DT 2 – Tevita Mo’unga
DT 3 – Solomone Wolfgramm

NT 2 – Khyiris Tonga
NT 2 – Wayne Tei-Kirby
NT 3 – Keanu Saleapaga or Alden Tofa

LE 1 – Corbin Kaufusi
LE 2 – Langi Tuifua
LE 3 – Uriah Leiataua

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Pictured: Current BYU Defensive Lineman, Corbin Kaufusi, flattens Utah’s running back, via sltrib.com

Translation/Final thoughts: We got a good look at a lot of the younger talent in the middle of the D-line last year. Out of those we got a glimpse of, Khyiris Tonga showed the most potential and I believe will win a starting spot outright. There are high expectations for Wayne Tei-Kirby, coming from the Oregon Ducks, but I don’t foresee him becoming a starter right away with the exception of injury. Instead, I believe that the other DT position will be won by either Merrill Taliauli or Tevita Mo’unga. If Sione Takitaki does move to LB, I expect Trajan Pili to line up opposite Corbin Kaufusi.

After year 2 of Ilaisa Tuiaki’s defense, there have been concerns about the line’s ability to rush the QB. However, with Tuiaki’s track record in his favor, the production and improvement we’ve already seen from the top defensive linemen, the experience the younger guys got due to injury, and the depth in the position, I have little reason to not have high expectations for the DL in 2018. While it may be unrealistic to expect someone to challenge Mekeli Ieremia for the single-season sack record (17,) it is not outside the realm of possibility that someone might get double-digit sacks in 2018 and to see an improved pass rush, as well as consistency against the run game.

Offensive Previews:
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Tight Ends
Wide Receivers
Quarterbacks

Defensive Previews:

Linebackers
– Cornerbacks
Safeties

See Also:

Special Teams Preview

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