Overall, we’re going to be right where we’ve been. Those guys now need to own it, and take the season and be the dominant defense we’ve been over the last nine years. —Outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga
PROVO — Many of the names will change on BYU’s defense next season, but as far as coach Bronco Mendenhall is concerned, the results will be similar.
“It will be the next version of our defense,” Mendenhall said, “which will be very strong again.”
The Cougars will be without a handful of star players next fall, including linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Uani Unga and Spencer Hadley, defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna, and safety Daniel Sorensen.
Some of their replacements are new, and some are not-so-new. A few are making comebacks after not being able to play last season. Some are switching positions. Some are fresh off LDS Church missions.
Cornerbacks Jordan Johnson and Trent Trammell will return after suffering season-ending knee injuries in 2013. Johnson is listed as the starter at field corner on the post-spring depth chart, with Trammell as his backup. Robertson Daniel, who stepped up at field cornerback in their absence last year, is listed as the boundary starting corner.
Zac Stout, who was dismissed from the team after a much-publicized brawl in the fall of 2012, has returned to the program and is listed as the starter at Mike linebacker.
On the defensive line, Graham Rowley, Kesni Tausinga and Travis Tuiloma are back from missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and each is expected to be a major contributor in the fall. Bronson Kaufusi has switched from the defensive line to outside linebacker, while Craig Bills will move over from kat safety to free safety, replacing Sorensen.
Mendenhall summed up his evaluation of the defense at the end of spring drills in early April.
“Defensively, I really like what Trenton Trammell has done. He gives us ability as a starter or depth at corner,” Mendenhall said. “Dallin Leavitt did a nice job this spring and he will play either safety and/or nickel for us. I like that. Zac Stout’s return has really helped us at inside ‘backer as well as Austin Heder, kind of emerging and Jherremya (Leuta-Douyere) moving to Buck linebacker. We are solidifying that spot. I loved Graham Rowley and Travis Tuiloma coming back off their missions. Felt similarly about Kensi Tausinga before he got hurt. That will be a nice addition to have back also.”
Outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga is bullish about what the BYU defense can accomplish in 2014.
“Overall, we’re going to be right where we’ve been,” he said. “Those guys now need to own it, and take the season and be the dominant defense we’ve been over the last nine years.”
Skye PoVey and Leavitt are listed as potential starters at free safety. In mid-April, BYU announced that Harvey Jackson would be joining the program. Jackson played 35 games at Nebraska before opting to transfer for his senior season.
Poppinga is looking forward to seeing how good the defensive secondary can be.
“Our DBs are deeper than they’ve ever been, with really good players. Rob Daniel — I mean, he had a really great spring and he’s going to have to prove it — he could be one of the best corners BYU has ever seen,” he said at the end of spring drills. “If Jordan Johnson can come back healthy and play the way he did in 2012, with those two guys and with Trent and getting Craig (Bills) healthy, it’s finding another safety. Dallin Leavitt had a great spring. Skye PoVey is experienced. We’ll see what happens.”
On the defensive line, Rowley is the starter at left end, with Marques Johnson and Tuiloma listed as co-starters at nose tackle. Remington Peck and Tuiloma are also listed as co-starters at right end.
“The D-line will be way better and way deeper than we were last year,” Poppinga said. “Travis Tuiloma, by far and away, I would say is our best nose tackle. He had a great spring. Kesni Tausinga was shocking us all before he got hurt the first couple of days of spring practices.”
Manoa Pikula and Stout emerged at Buck and Mike linebacker, respectively, with Letua-Douyere and Heder backing them up. On the outside, Kaufusi and Alani Fua will man the outside linebacker spots. Michael Alisa and Sae Tautu are listed as their backups.
Which defensive players impressed BYU quarterback Taysom Hill during the spring?
“Robertson Daniel had an extremely good spring. He came in and gave us a good, physical presence in our secondary,” Hill said. “I think he’ll be a great boundary corner. I’m anxious to see how Jordan Johnson recovers from his ACL. Also, that move Bronson made to outside ‘backer is really good for him and for our team. I think that compared to last spring and fall camp when he had his hand on the ground, he made a lot of plays this spring at that position.”
Poppinga said that for the defense to enjoy its run of success, players need to put in the work during the offseason.
“It’s on them. They need to take ownership, make each other accountable. They need to make sure they come into fall camp prepared both physically and mentally. They need to continue to work in the film room and do our player-run practices. If they do that, we’ll be really good.”