We feel like we haven’t lost a step in regards to last year where we were at. We have definitely come a long way over the spring. Coach (Kalani) Sitake wanted us to focus on our fundamentals, so that transitioned to our summer where that’s all we were focusing on. —BYU linebacker Butch Pau'u
PROVO — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki succinctly summed up the Cougars at linebacker in 2017:
“That ‘backer group is deep, especially in experience.”
It’s because of that experience that BYU has supreme confidence in its defense overall heading into a front-loaded 2017 season, where teams like LSU, Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State and Mississippi State await.
The experience begins with senior outside linebacker Fred Warner, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, and extends to the Cougars’ other two returning starters, junior middle linebacker Butch Pau'u and junior weakside linebacker Francis Bernard.
Warner, Pau'u and Bernard were BYU’s top three tacklers in 2016 and helped the Cougars force 31 turnovers last season, tied for second-most in the country.
“We feel like we haven’t lost a step in regards to last year where we were at. We have definitely come a long way over the spring. Coach (Kalani) Sitake wanted us to focus on our fundamentals, so that transitioned to our summer where that’s all we were focusing on,” Pau'u said.
“After workouts, we would go out onto the field and focus on our footwork, focus on our shuffling, focus on just all the minor things so that we could be OK this season.”
The expectations will be higher for the linebackers in Year 2 of the Tuiaki 4-3 system.
“A year under their belt with the new scheme, we expect a lot more this year just as far as understanding it and responding, a better understanding of the scheme that we’re running,” said linebackers coach Steve Kaufusi.
At the forefront is Warner, a candidate for the Bednarik Award and Butkus Award who has excelled on the outside for BYU. He led the Cougars with 86 tackles last season while adding 10.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions (including a pick-six), six pass breakups, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks.
“Athletically, Fred’s incredible. He makes plays that other people can’t,” junior middle linebacker Adam Pulsipher said. “He’s able to really key in on the quarterback and jump routes.”
Pau’u said Warner has also made it an emphasis to be a more vocal leader this season.
“That’s something you’ve seen Fred step more into as a senior. Last year, he let the seniors lead, but he also led himself,” Pau'u said. “This year, right after the seniors graduated, he was on top of making sure that each of us knows that he was going to be our captain.”
Pau’u had 83 tackles last season, with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in his first season as a starter.
“He definitely uses his leverage and is really explosive, great in the middle,” Pulsipher said of Pau’u, who Pulsipher filled in for as a starter twice last season at middle linebacker.
Pau’u said at the beginning of this year, the seniors talked to the juniors to let them know they have a voice on the team. It’s allowed him the confidence to speak up without feeling he stepped out of place or overruled the seniors.
“What’s been great is they trust enough in me to understand that I’m going to just try and help out the defense in any way I can,” he said.
Bernard, a former BYU running back, is back after his first year as a linebacker for the Cougars led to 80 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, three pass breakups, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
“He’s so detail oriented. At the very beginning of the year (in 2016), he was kind of struggling but you saw him soar after game 4 or 5 where Francis was everywhere,” Pau’u said.
“Francis is still coming a long ways ... but he’s still making sure that he is able to take advantage of certain formations that the offense presents. He does a really good job of that.”
Behind their strong linebacking core, the Cougars finished 2016 No. 34 nationally in total defense (365 yards per game), ninth in rush defense (112.85) and 14th in scoring defense (19.5 points per game), in addition to their ability to force turnovers.
Beyond the three returning starters, there’s confidence in the second group and younger linebackers as well.
During the first two days of fall camp, Pulsipher — who, along with Johnny “Kuj” Tapusoa, is expected to back up Pau’u — knocked down a pair of passes. That included one in the backfield on a pass attempt from starting quarterback Tanner Mangum. Freshman Garrett England made an athletic interception off of freshman quarterback Austin Kafentzis during Day 1.
“I think the second year in a defense, you’re able to play a lot faster and know where the holes are in the zones so you can take chances,” Pulsipher said.
Other young linebackers who have garnered attention include Isaiah Kaufusi, Morgan Unga and Phillip Amone.
“That young group is a lot farther ahead," Tuiaki said after Monday's practice. Added Pulsipher: "Morgan Unga always plays fast. He’s a heck of an athlete. He’s put in a ton of work in the offseason. Kuj Tapusoa has been playing hard, strong in the run game. Isaiah Kaufusi and Phillip Amone have really been stepping it up."
The chances will be there for the younger athletes to make an impression.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys. There’s no looking around — it’s their turn. Hopefully they’re working hard, find a role and be a guy that we can count on,” Steve Kaufusi said.
There are only two senior linebackers on this year’s roster — Warner and Va’a Niumatalolo. That means opportunities this year could lead to greater things in 2018 and beyond. Warner plans on soaking it all in during his final season at BYU.
“I know I’m having a blast. I’m probably having more fun than anybody just because I know it’s my last time and I know I’ve got to squeeze everything out of these practices,” he said.