If you look back at where we were last year, we’re ahead of where we were. I’m expecting big things from this defense this year. —BYU linebacker Fred Warner
PROVO — Despite welcoming back a strong nucleus of players from last season, BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki is cautious when assessing this year’s defense two weeks into fall camp.
“It’s slowly getting there. A lot of work to be done,” he said. “There are nuances of the defense. ...We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got all of the schemes and formations and all of the defenses that we run nice and tight — guys doing their assignments and playing technique the right way. It takes time, especially with the young guys.”
The Cougars have plenty of young guys, especially on the defensive line, where BYU lost veterans like Travis Tuiloma, Logan Taele, Harvey Langi and Sae Tautu.
Overall, however, Tuiaki enjoys the depth of the defense.
“There was more experience on last year’s team with all those guys that played, had game experience and their leadership,” he said. “But I think we can go deep into the depth chart as far as second and third (teams) that can contribute.”
Tuiaki also likes his players’ attitude and approach.
“They’re a great group of kids,” he said. “They’re really competitive. They love the game and it’s fun to watch.”
At the two defensive tackle spots, there are a lot of players rotating in, vying for playing time.
“Some of the younger guys who didn’t play last year are learning,” Tuiaki said. “There are a lot of reps to be had so that those guys learn how to play. It takes a lot of time.”
Among those who have impressed during camp are freshmen Langi Tuifua and Lorenzo Fauatea.
“They’re ahead of the learning curve for most freshman that I’ve seen,” Tuiaki said. “Langi especially. He’s a different animal. He’s really strong for how big he is and he has a knack for rushing the passer.”
At defensive end, Corbin Kaufusi and Sione Takitaki look solid. Takitaki hasn’t played in a game since midway through the 2015 season.
“He’s a beast,” quarterback Tanner Mangum said of Takitaki. “Sione is excited to be back and he’s taking full advantage of his opportunity to play. You watch the film and every single play, he’s causing trouble, wreaking havoc. He’s quick and he makes it tough for our O-line. He’s a tough guy to guard. It’s exciting to have a playmaker like that. He’s got that motor and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does this season.”
The plan this season, Tuaiki said, is to rotate up to five defensive linemen and five defensive ends.
“Our D-line is coming along,” Mangum said. “Some of the young guys are making big contributions on the D-line. That’s comforting to see.”
The heart and soul of the BYU defense, of course, is the linebackers — Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard. Warner and Pau’u were recently voted team captains by their teammates.
“They’re good. Fred Warner, he’s the man,” Mangum said, “and Butch and Francis, our linebacking crew is really good.”
In the defensive secondary, Micah Hannemann returns at safety while Troy Warner and Dayan Ghanwoloku are manning the corner spots.
“We feel like we have a good two-deep at the corner spot, especially with the type of defense that we play,” Tuiaki said.
While BYU also has Chris Wilcox, Isaiah Armstrong and Michael Shelton to bolster the depth at cornerback. However, last week sophomore Austin McChesney suffered a season-ending injury.
“It forces some of the younger guys to step up,” Tuiaki said. “(McChesney) was looking good and we were counting on him. But some of the younger guys need to step up and be a guy for us right away.”
The Cougar defense is based around pressuring the quarterback while the corners play man coverage.
“It all starts up front,” said cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. “Our guys are doing a good job up front, putting pressure on the QB, which makes our job easier.”
Troy Warner, who played significantly as a true freshman last year feels good about what the corners can accomplish this fall.
“We’re more comfortable, more confident than last year,” he said. “We’re trying to sharpen up everything that we can so we’re ready for Game One and the rest of the season.”
As for the defense overall?
“If you look back at where we were last year, we’re ahead of where we were,” Warner said. “I’m expecting big things from this defense this year.”