PROVO — Outside linebacker coach Kelly Poppinga is excited about his group of players this year. Sure, any coach would be excited about having a talent like Kyle Van Noy, who is generally considered the best player on the team at any position, but it’s a lot more than that.
Throughout fall practices, Poppinga has seen up-and-coming players challenge assumed starters for spots with those assumed starters responding. He’s also seen young players surpass expectations to secure roles on the two-deep roster.
“I like how guys have competed and I feel really good about our depth and our ability to make plays,” said Poppinga. “Overall I’m very pleased with how things have gone at both will (weak-side) linebacker and at sam (strong-side linebacker.)”
With Van Noy returning to start at will, sam linebacker was a question at the start of camp. Junior Spencer Hadley was penciled in as the starter out of spring, but he had his work cut out for him to be inked-in as the starter on the two-deep roster.
Hadley was pushed big-time by sophomore Alani Fua who showed very well throughout August and looked to unseat Hadley from his starting role at times.
“Spencer (Hadley) has taken some strides forward during the past week,” said Poppinga. “The first week and a half Alani (Fua) probably had the best camp of anybody on our defense. He played really well, but then Spencer caught up with him and has passed him for right now and is probably going to be the starter there going into the first game.”
Hadley is considered to be better in pass coverage and in defending the run while Fua is considered the better pass rusher. The plan is to rotate both players throughout the season with Poppinga confident in each guy.
Fua will likely see most of his reps when the Cougar defense goes with its nickel formation or even subbing in at will linebacker. Should Van Noy go down with injury, Poppinga mentioned he’d most likely go with Fua at will and Hadley at sam, although a different player will be named as Van Noy’s backup on the depth chart.
True freshman Jherremya Leuta-Douyere impressed during fall camp and beat out upperclassmen to earn a spot on the two-deep roster.
“Jherremya (Leuta-Douyere) has done a great job for being a true freshman,” said Poppinga. “He shows flashes. Every day I’m excited to have him here. He reminds me of James Harrison from the Pittsburgh Steelers. (He’s) the same kind of build, the same kind of stature and he’s a very low-leverage speed type of guy. He’s physical and he loves to play football. I think he’s going to be a really good player for us in the future.”
It hasn’t been all a bed of roses for the outside linebacker this fall, however. After showing very well for one week, freshman Kevan Bills sustained a season-ending ACL injury.
“He’ll recover. He’s a tough kid and I’ll be anxious to see him play next year,” said Poppinga. “He probably would have been the second (will linebacker.) He’s a big physical guy who loves to play the game, so it’s just too bad that had to happen.”
Another outside linebacker who holds a lot of intrigue is Ezekial “Ziggy” Ansah who is currently on loan to defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi until assumed starter Ian Dulan proves healthy enough to perform.
“He’s super smart and he knows the entire defense really, really well,” said Poppinga. “He can go from will to playing an inside one technique and inside three technique to playing the field side in nickel. He’s really smart and really intelligent and we just need to get him 100-percent healthy for the first game.”