PROVO — Neither player sought the role they're expected to take on.
But entering BYU's fall camp, senior Eathyn Manumaleuna and sophomore Bronson Kaufusi find themselves as the default leaders along the Cougars' defensive line.
Manumaleuna, a player with vast experience who's entering his final season of college football, and Kaufusi, a player who shined last year as a true freshman after an LDS mission, are both expected to lead BYU's group of D-linemen this season.
“It’s crazy to think about it, but yeah, I’m one of two guys who played in most of the games last year returning, so I guess I’m a veteran,” Kaufusi said. “It’s a position I never thought I’d be in during just my second year, but I love it. I love having that responsibility as a leader.”
Kaufusi is a 6-foot-7, 270-pound defensive lineman who contributed immediately and often last season despite being just two weeks removed from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the start of fall practices. The Timpview product tallied 23 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks while playing in all 13 games in 2012.
Odds are that his contribution will increase — maybe significantly — during his sophomore season.
Kaufusi enters fall camp better-conditioned, more agile and, most importantly, stronger than he was a year ago.
“Last year I just couldn’t go head to head against the bigger guys like I wanted,” Kaufusi said. “Every game I was going up against guys with denser muscle mass and it was frustrating and it was hard. I’ve worked hard all offseason to increase my strength and hopefully I’ll be able to make it work for me.”
His fellow defensive line leader believes he'll make it work.
“Bronson has it all. He’s an athletic freak — sort of like Ziggy (Ansah) was,” Manumaleuna said. “You hate to compare anyone to Ziggy and Bronson doesn’t need to be compared to anyone. He has his own set of skills and all he lacked last year was strength. He has that strength now and I think he’s going to have a big year for us.”
Kaufusi played alongside Ansah last season and took copious notes to help with his own development.
“When you see a guy who is athletically gifted as Ziggy give it his all on every play, that inspires you,” he said. “He obviously did things on the field that no one else could, but he always worked hard, always hustled, and that was a huge example for me and for all of us. Having that experience playing with Ziggy only helps me.”
Kaufusi is likely to start at one defensive end position and will likely be paired with Manumaleuna as the two primary linemen in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s 2-5-4 formation, which will likely be employed extensively.
As for Manumaleuna, he’ll play extensively at either defensive end or nose tackle, much like he has since his freshman year.
“Getting Eathyn back this year was huge for us,” said defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi. “He’s a guy I can put in anywhere in any situation and I trust him to get it done. He’s someone the younger guys can look to and see how it’s done.”
Manumaleuna has embraced his leadership role and seeks to help the incoming players make the type of immediate contribution he did when he was a freshman.
“I’ve been there, but I think the main reason I was able to contribute as a freshman is because there weren’t a lot of guys available,” Manumaleuna said. “This year there’s a lot of guys coming in and it should be a huge battle. I’ll try and help as much as I can, but ultimately it will be up to each guy and how hard they’re willing to work.”
The incoming group of players include JC transfer Kalolo Utu (6-2, 260), JonRyheem Peoples (6-6, 300) and Merrill Taliauli (6-2, 305.) They’ll battle with Tuni Kanuch and Marques Johnson for playing time at nose tackle.
“I’m excited to have five guys battle it out for playing time,” coach Kaufusi said. “This is what you love as a coach — opportunities like this to coach guys up and hopefully get them to compete at a high level. It’s going to be a lot of fun and hopefully we figure it out.”
THIRD IN THE PECKING ORDER: Coach Kaufusi mentioned that Remington Peck will be the third defensive lineman behind Manumaleuna and Bronson at the start of fall camp. Peck played sparingly last season but made a lot of strides during spring practices.
“Remington has put in the time and has improved his strength and his overall play,” coach Kaufusi said. “It’s been exciting to watch his improvement and he’s probably going to be the guy to beat out at the other starting defensive end if we have to use (Manumaleuna) at nose tackle.”
Converted tight end Austin Holt will also compete at defensive end, but has some catching up to do.
“I liked what I saw from Austin in spring, but he has a ways to go,” Coach Kaufusi said.