New Mexico State (3-7) at BYU (5-5)
Saturday, 8:15 MST LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
PROVO — While BYU’s offense has experienced a youth movement this season, the defense, which has carried the Cougars most of the year, has been led by a group of resilient seniors.
They'll be among the 25 seniors that will be honored Saturday (8:15 p.m., MST, ESPN2) on Senior Night when BYU hosts New Mexico State at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Linebacker Sione Takitaki (82 tackles, 6 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack) and defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi (49 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, 8.5 sacks) have drawn considerable attention from NFL scouts this season.
“Thinking about it, it gets a little sad,” Takitaki said about playing in his final home game. “You spend some time at BYU and play some football. I’m a little sad, but then I’m a little excited to get going with my life. I’ve been (at BYU) for a while. So I’m ready to go.”
Takitaki has gone through, and overcome, several off-the-field issues during his Cougar career to become a dynamic playmaker and a strong leader.
The 6-foot-9, 275-pound Kaufusi started out playing basketball for BYU before turning his full attention to football, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Bronson, who is now in the NFL.
Kaufusi has improved every year and he’s given opposing coaches and players nightmares.
“He’s massive. You study film and you look at how big he is. He’s big and he moves well. I’m sure plane rides aren’t very comfortable for him,” said Boise State coach Bryan Harsin. “He’s a heckuva player.”
Another senior, linebacker Zayne Anderson, who suffered a season-ending shoulder surgery, is No. 4 on the team in tackles (36) despite having played in only four games. Anderson made a key interception in the upset at Wisconsin and he’s expected to be granted a medical hardship and return for his senior season in 2019.
Another senior, who has been relatively unsung this season, is defensive back Michael Shelton. The 5-foot-8, 180-pounder from Raleigh, North Carolina, has recorded 30 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, a 31-yard interception return (against Boise State), three pass breakups, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
Shelton has also returned 18 punts, including a key 37-yard return against Arizona.
Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford appreciates how much Shelton has developed.
“His football IQ has always been high. He’s matured so much over the past three years and I’m talking in his life,” Gilford. “From being single to getting ready to get married in a month, from struggling in school to having already graduated and just taking the next step in being a leader. He’s definitely the leader as far as (the cornerback position) goes. He’s my only senior. He teaches the freshmen so much. It’s like having an extension of a coach on the field. It’s a pleasure having him. He’s been a great asset to our room. I love the kid and I’ll miss him.”
Another senior, linebacker Butch Pau’u, has battled injuries this season and has seen his playing time diminish.
“A lot of us went down (to injuries) and you battle things,” Pau’u said. “My role has been to continue to motivate the guys to play well. Our defense has been amazing the past couple of weeks. We’re going to continue to roll with that.”
Pau’u is a wistful looking back at his career, heading into his last home game.
“I’m sad that I won’t have the opportunity to be here again and go through spring ball and the grueling workouts and not have the opportunity to put on a helmet and a jersey at LaVell Edwards Stadium,” he said. “We’re going to make the most of it.”
Through all of his ups and downs during his time at BYU, he’s thankful to have had the chance to play for the Cougars and be a teammate of his younger brother, Neil, a sophomore wide receiver.3 comments on this story
“I’ve learned to be grateful for every opportunity that I get. I didn’t think I would get an opportunity to play with my brother and I’m grateful that I’ve had two years to play with him,” Pau’u said. “I had always dreamed but the reality was that not very many people were going to give me play at the next level. I’m grateful for the opportunity that (former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall) and (current coach Kalani Sitake) gave me to even play. I’m really grateful for my time at BYU and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. I’m going to continue to enjoy it through these next three games.”