PROVO — BYU enters its fall practice session with a lot of question marks at inside linebacker, and a lot of intrigue at the outside position.
Gone are Kyle Van Noy, who was considered the best defensive play-maker in program history, and Uani Unga, who manned the Mike linebacker position as well as any player Coach Bronco Mendenhall has coached.
Despite significant losses at both the inside and outside positions, coaches remain optimistic about their ability to field an effective two-deep roster coming out of August practices.
Here's a look at the players who will be vying for playing time for the season opener versus Connecticut.
At outside linebacker, senior Alani Fua (6-foot-5, 228) appears poised for a big season. Fua logged plenty of quality reps last season and showed the ability to make plays when called upon. Fua is clearly the most experienced player at linebacker entering fall camp.
Joining Fua as the penciled in starter at outside linebacker is converted defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (6-7, 263.) The junior Timpview product showed well at his new position throughout spring practices and could be poised for a big year.
The returning experience beyond Fua and Kaufusi is very thin — presenting some challenges in establishing quality depth at the outside spot. Junior Kevan Bills (6-3, 245), has battled through injuries and hopes to establish himself this fall, along with sophomore Sae Tautu (6-3, 245), among others.
At inside linebacker the clear leader looks to be junior Manoa Pikula (6-1, 235), who is the expected starter at Buck linebacker. Pikula has logged good game experience and will be relied on heavily to make plays and be a leader.
Senior Zac Stout (6-1, 217) played as a true freshman in 2010, but hasn't seen on field playing time since after battling through some off-the-field issues. Stout had a standout spring, however, and appears poised to start alongside Pikula at the Mike linebacker position.
The lone returning inside linebacker with any type of experience to speak of is converted outside linebacker Jherremya Leuta-Douyere (6-0, 236.)
Despite the lack of returning experience, both the outside and inside linebacker positions include some exciting additions that should add considerably to the overall depth.
At outside linebacker, senior Michael Alisa (6-1, 220) switches back to the position he played as a true freshman before switching to running back. Alisa missed all of spring due to injury, but should be healthy come fall.
Two of the more exciting additions at outside linebacker include true freshmen Tyler Cook (6-3, 216) and Fred Warner (6-3, 210.) Both players come in with stellar recruiting credentials and could make immediate impacts.
Troy Hinds (6-5, 235) was another top recruit who is recently returned from mission service for The Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints.
Another exciting addition is sophomore Harvey Langi (6-2, 250), who decided to join BYU's program after playing a season for Utah prior to his LDS mission service. It's unclear at this time which position the former Bingham standout will play, but his progress will certainly be worth noting throughout August.
At inside linebacker key additions like sophomore Austin Heder (6-1, 241), along with freshmen Taloa'i Ho Ching (6-1, 230), Adam Pulsipher (6-2, 230) and Phillip Amone (6-0, 230) could make big impacts. All four are freshly returned from LDS mission service and a couple of them, such as Heder, turned heads during spring practices.
I'm going with Fred Warner as my dark horse at linebacker. Warner was pursued by top Pac-12 programs late in the recruiting process, and for good reason, considering the ability he showed at the prep level playing for Mission Hills High School (Calif.)6 comments on this story
Considering the lack of established depth at outside linebacker, Warner, or his good friend Tyler Cook, could make big impacts in their initial seasons at BYU.
There appears a possibility for some great competition for spots on the two-deep roster throughout the fall practice session. Coaches have a lot to sort out, but with some intriguing options.
Look for Fua, Kaufusi and Pikula to lock down their starting spots and the competition to be fierce for backup slots and the starting Mike linebacker position.