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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU linebacker Butch Pau'u runs after an interception during practice in Provo on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.

PROVO — Butch Pau’u is like a bowling ball seeking pins to tumble on the football field.

BYU’s junior starting middle linebacker is primed and ready to build on his Cougar career, which kicked off last season with plenty of big plays against Arizona and UCLA before injuring his knee and limping the rest of the way through the season.

Pau’u is a natural leader, a dynamo, a guy with a cage fighter mentality who loves to mix it up and thrives on physical play. Although he played in only 10 games in 2016, he ended up second on the team in total tackles and his 19 against UCLA tied him for the most by a Cougar in 16 years.

During BYU’s first week of fall drills, Pau’u proclaimed his health to be 100 percent, his strained knee completely healed. His hunger to get things going is driving him this August.

“From a defensive perspective, we’re looking good,” said Pau’u. “We have installed some new things into the defense to prepare us for LSU and Portland State, some little switchbacks and whatever. It’s difficult right now because we aren’t used to it and it's tough, but with a few more days of practice we’ll get into a rhythm of things with this specific defense. We’re flying around, so we’re fine.”

Pau’u said BYU’s team leaders, which include center Tejan Koroma, linebackers Francis Bernard and Fred Warner and quarterback Tanner Mangum, got the squad together and emphasized the tone they wanted from every player during camp.

“We want to be competitive and have a high level of energy," he said. "We understand it’s only the first few days of fall camp so everyone is excited and loves to be out here and are giving their all, but we want it to continue all the way.”

If the Cougars are to be competitive in September against LSU, Utah and Wisconsin, they’ll need their defense to be disruptive, get after quarterbacks, apply pressure and force turnovers.

Pau’u believes the defense is on the right track and it begins up front.

“They look strong and are very explosive. Last year, we weren’t as explosive. We didn’t get our hands in the right places," Pau’u explained. "This year what we are seeing (in improvements) is due to our focus in the spring on fundamentals and all the little things that go into doing things properly.

"Defensive guys are all doing a lot better. It’s really made a difference to have Sione Takitaki involved again — his get off of the ball is just incredible. You can’t teach the kind of things that he does. So I’m excited for a new year.

“It was nice last year to have Kai Nacua back there making plays," he continued. "It’s the same thing this year as a year ago, to be disruptive. When we get after the quarterback, we’ve seen how that can turn things for us. We’ll miss Kai but we have Troy Warner and Micah Hannemann. When quarterbacks are hurried by our defensive line it makes it so much easier for the defensive backs to get off on the ball and make plays. We’re always telling each other to get on the quarterback, get on him so we can get the ball back to the offense.”

Personally, Pau'u said he benefited from the half-month break from football after BYU’s bowl win over Wyoming in San Diego. The rest gave his knee time to recover from the pounding of the season.

“I’m a hundred percent. The two and a half week break after the bowl game was great for me. We came back and I was able to do some lifting but the break and classes were good for me and our spring ball didn’t begin until late March. All the rehab and recovery I’ve been doing has made things great. I’m all back now with no more worries about being a hundred percent. I just hope to be a contributor to the team.”

Pau'u said he’s trying to improve his techniques this year, in particular, and his movement around the line as a prime run stopper in general. He did get his first career interception last year against West Virginia.

He wants more.

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” he said.

“I feel good. I talked to one of the strength and conditioning coaches and he told me he’d like to improve my change of direction. He said I didn’t change it as well as I could have last year so he wanted me to do some work in the sand, do some cone drills and work on my lateral movement, side to side. I feel like I’ve done a lot better and have come a long way but I still have work to do.”

Conditioning coach Nu’u Tafisi asked BYU’s athletic department to install a 40-yard sand pit, contained in a concrete-sided rectangle wall right next to the practice field by the team locker rooms. Tafisi hasn’t used it yet, but he did implement the work in the sand at the Cougar Track and Field complex during the summer and liked the results.

“So far we haven’t done work in this sand pit,” said Pau’u. “We have done some work at the track facility in the sand. When we work out over there we are just dying and just sweating. When Nu’u gets the opportunity and turns us loose here, I know it will be tougher here than what we do in the weight room.”

If it helps Pau’u knock down ball carriers with a little more agility side to side, he’s all for it.

Bring on the beach.