PROVO — Khyiris Tonga is hard to miss, not just because of his gigantic 6-foot-4, 340-pound frame, but for what he does when lining up along the BYU defensive front. It makes everything flow better for a 4-3 base defense that is predicated on pressure up front.
Tonga recently began taking live reps in practice and players readily welcomed him.
"It changes everything when he's in there," noted BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki, who switched from defensive end to outside linebacker over the offseason. "It's a blessing for us, with him taking up all those blocks so we can fill those holes and make plays. He frees everything up and he's a beast."
Tonga came on to the scene last season and made his presence known almost immediately as a true disrupter playing on the defensive interior. He came to BYU after prepping at Granger High School, where he played at a much lighter weight, before gaining a lot of stature while serving an LDS Church mission to Kansas.
Although his stats show only 19 tackles and two sacks, in part due to some injury issues, his presence works to help those around him, as Takitaki stated.
So far this fall Tonga has spent a lot of time working his way back into shape, although Monday's practice indicates he'll be taking more and more reps at defensive tackle during live sessions.
"If he can get his weight down he will be even better," said BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. "Right now he is a little bit heavy. If we can get him to where he needs to be and he stays there, he is a game-changer. I think he is a difference-maker.”
For Tonga, he shies completely away when told of Tuiaki's praise.
"I don't even know what to say about that. I guess it's good having coaches believe in you, but I don't know," Tonga said. "I'm just like everyone else. Trying to earn a spot and help the team as best I can."
As far as getting into game shape, Tonga understands he needs to get lighter and is working hard to get there.
"Like I said, whatever I can do to help," he said. "My job is to allow the linebackers to come in clean and maybe make some plays when the opportunity arises. I think I did alright with that last year, but I need to continue working on the little things and get better every day."
Tonga's presence is needed for what looks to be an otherwise inexperienced defensive tackle unit that looks to be without assumed starter Tevita Mo'Unga, who is not listed on the current roster and whose status for the season is questionable, at best.
But there are a lot of available bodies to compete for a key role in what coaches hope becomes a high-pressure defense.
Some of those who have made good strides at defensive tackle already this fall include Merrill Taliauli, Lorenzo Fauatea, Atunaisa Mahe, among others.
"I'm impressed with the young guys coming up," Tonga said. "There's a lot more guys, it seems, and those guys are going to help us out a ton."
One defensive tackle who did a better job than Tonga at losing weight in the offseason is Motekiai Langi, who has lost close to 100 pounds and is making good strides.6 comments on this story
"I like having a guy on my team bigger than me, but man, if he keeps losing weight like he has — I don't know," Tonga said. "He's looking good and he's going to be a player as long as he keeps working."
Tonga believes the defensive interior will be a strength this season.
"It's important that we're demanding those double teams and making everything else work free," Tonga said. "Coaches have gone about putting some new systems for us and it's going to be good. We're going to be strong up the middle. No doubt."