PROVO — Not long ago, BYU's defensive line looked like one of the deepest positions on the team.
Now? Not so much.
BYU announced Thursday that junior defensive lineman Bernard Afutiti has been ruled academically ineligible and will not compete for the Cougars in 2009. Afutiti is the latest in a string of D-linemen who will not play for BYU this season. Starters Ian Dulan and Russell Tialavea, both juniors, have opted to serve missions.
According to the depth chart released after spring practices, Afutiti was listed as Jan Jorgensen's backup at left end.
Afutiti (6-foot-1, 262 pounds) is known for his quickness and athleticism. He helped lead Mt. San Antonio College (Walnut, Calif.) to a 10-3 record in 2007 before transferring to BYU. He redshirted in 2008.
"He will remain in school and work on becoming eligible to compete again as a senior in the 2010 season," said coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Afutiti, who was projected to be a major contributor this season, was sidelined for almost all of spring ball for academic reasons.
The starters at the other two D-line positions coming out of spring were senior Brett Denney at right end and Tialavea at nose guard. Matt Putnam was listed as Denney's backup, with junior Rick Wolfley playing behind Tialavea.
Now, the BYU coaching staff is likely scrambling to find replacements heading into fall camp, which opens in August.
Cougar coaches weren't available for comment Thursday, but during an interview with defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi at the end of spring drills in mid-April, he told the Deseret News that he was happy with the way the D-line performed, calling it "a veteran group."
The Cougars worked on developing the less-experienced players during the spring, such as Putnam, Wolfley and Afutiti.
"They need to step up. It's their turn," Kaufusi said in April. "We took a step forward. Now that we (coaches) can't work out with them (during the summer), it's on their shoulders to show up and be well-conditioned and be ready to go and watching film on their own."
The depth appeared to be solid enough at one time that BYU signed only one defensive lineman last February, Layton High School product Thomas Bryson.
Last winter, Dulan surprised the coaches by telling them he had decided to go on a mission. Then, after the conclusion of spring ball, Tialavea announced his intentions to serve a mission.
BYU does have two returned missionaries who will return to the program in August — Romney Fuga, who started as a freshman in 2006, and Jordan Richardson.
"They won't be ready until fall, but you've got to start somewhere," Kaufusi said.
Of Fuga, Kaufusi said, "Romney's been in Madagascar (on his mission). I'm thinking, 'OK, he's been working out over there with all of that walking that he's got to do.' He's played for me, so I think there's a chance, depending on how good a shape he's in, can help us." It's clear that BYU is focused on replenishing the defensive line position for next year's recruiting class. The Cougars have verbal commitments from four D-linemen who can sign a national letter of intent in February — Timpview High's Bronson Kaufusi and Bingham High's Tuni Kanuch, as well as Travis Tuiloma from Kansas and Tayo Fabuluje from Texas. But, of course, the earliest those players could make an impact is 2010.