Here are the Deseret News’ projections for BYU’s two-deep on defense and special teams this coming college football season, which is in danger of being delayed or shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series projecting BYU’s depth chart.
PROVO — Having done their share to carry the Cougars in head coach Kalani Sitake’s first three seasons, BYU’s defense and special teams faltered in 2019 and could be blamed for a couple of losses that kept a mediocre season from becoming a notable one.
Will they be better in 2020?
Assuming the season is played as scheduled, a big assumption right now considering how much the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the entire sports landscape, most of the same players who led both units last year are back to try and improve upon some shaky performances. On defense, the Cougars will miss standout safeties Austin Lee and Dayan Ghanwoloku.
On special teams, backup punter Danny Jones gave up football, part-time place-kicker Skyler Southam transferred to Utah and long snapper Mitch Harris and punt returner extraordinaire Aleva Hifo exhausted their eligibility.
Recently, the Deseret News took a stab at projecting BYU’s offensive depth chart for the coming season; now, we will make our best guesses regarding defensive and special teams.
Defensive line: In a nutshell, and in an attempt to spread the blame around, 7-6 BYU’s two biggest problems last year were stopping the run defensively and scoring touchdowns in the red zone offensively.
A lot of the defense’s shortcomings fell upon the defensive line, which struggled to contain mediocre running backs and got little pressure on opposing quarterbacks. BYU ranked 117th in the country in total sacks, and was pulverized by sweet-throwing quarterbacks such as Hawaii’s Cole McDonald and Washington’s Jacob Eason.
The Cougars are slowly transitioning to a 4-3 defensive front, so for our purposes here in these depth chart projections we will list four starting linebackers and four starting defensive linemen.
The return of Khyiris Tonga, a surefire starter at nose tackle after deciding in December to come back for his final season, is a huge positive if the 340-pounder can improve his stamina. Seniors Zac Dawe (end), Uriah Leiataua (outside end) and junior Lorenzo Fauatea (defensive tackle) should round out the starting four along the line.
However, sophomore Atunaisa Mahe and senior Bracken El-Bakri will push for starting spots inside, having seen several starts there last year. At the end positions, we went with freshman Seleti Fevaleaki and sophomore Darius McFarland as key backups, but don’t be surprised if freshman returned missionary Tyler Batty, who was having a strong spring camp, walk-on Gabe Summers and redshirt freshman Freddy Livai play their way into the two-deep.
Linebackers: Extremely young and inexperienced in 2019, the linebacking corps should be a strength in 2020, led by seniors Isaiah Kaufusi at outside ’backer and Kavika Fonua at middle ’backer. The unit led BYU in interceptions last season.
Another likely starter is sophomore Payton Wilgar, who could line up at defensive end if the search for a capable pass-rusher among the aforementioned defensive ends isn’t successful. Junior Chaz Ah You is the presumed starter at flash linebacker if he’s available after some legal issues surfaced in February. Charges against Ah You for suspicion of DUI were dropped by the Utah County Attorney’s Office, but coach Kalani Sitake has declined to comment on the talented player’s status for this fall.
Sophomore Keenan Pili started in the overtime win over USC last year and looked promising before an injury derailed his playing time. Along with fellow redshirt sophomores Drew Jensen and Jackson Kaufusi, he will push the veterans and Wilgar for playing time.
Cornerbacks: Injured most of the past two seasons, lanky cornerback Chris Wilcox returns for his final season of eligibility hoping to rediscover the groove that led him to be one of BYU’s best defenders in 2018. Pencil him in as a starter. On the other side, junior D’Angelo Mandell and sophomore Isaiah Herron both showed flashes of brilliance last year, but were also inconsistent and penalty prone.
Junior Keenan Ellis and Weber State transfer Shamon Willis just missed making our two-deep chart, but easily could move in if any of the aforementioned falter.
Safeties: BYU will replace two senior safeties with two senior safeties, as former linebacker Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner step in for Lee and Ghanwoloku. Junior Malik Moore got the start when Lee couldn’t play in the bowl game due to hamstring issues, and struggled mightily. Walk-on Hayden Livingston started in the opener last year against Utah (Ghanwoloku played cornerback in that game) and stands ready for more playing time.
Sophomore Max Tooley, who played linebacker last season, has been moved to safety and adds good size and athleticism to the group.
“We are hungry and we are motivated,” Tooley said. “We feel like we have all the tools we need to have a really good defense, and a really good season.”
Special teams: Sophomores Jake Oldroyd and Skyler Southam battled throughout fall camp and at times during the season last year to be the Cougars’ field goal kicker, and Oldroyd apparently won because Southam transferred to Utah at season’s end. Odroyd should be able to hold off freshman returned missionary Ryan Rehkow for kicking duties, but look for the Washington native to take over punting duties.
BYU will have trouble replacing Hifo, one of the best punt returners in school history; junior receivers Dax Milne and Gunner Romney will compete for that role, while running backs Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier could be the kickoff returners.
Deseret News’ projected BYU football defense and special teams depth chart
DE: 99 Zac Dawe (Sr.), 44 Seleti Fevaleaki (Fr.)
NT: 95 Khyiris Tonga (Sr.), 62 Atunaisa Mahe (So.)
DT: 55 Lorenzo Fauatea (Jr.), 93 Bracken El-Bakri (Sr.)
OE: 58 Uriah Leiataua (Sr.), 5 Darius McFarland (So.)
OLB: 53 Isaiah Kaufusi (Sr.), 31 Jackson Kaufusi (So.)
MLB: 34 Kavika Fonua (Sr.), 41 Keenan Pili (So.)
OLB: 49 Payton Wilgar (So.), 46 Drew Jensen (So.)
FLB: 3 Chaz Ah You (Jr.), 31 Max Tooley (So.)
LC: 32 Chris Wilcox (Sr.), 30 Keenan Ellis (Jr.)
FS: 23 Zayne Anderson (Sr.), 12 Malik Moore (Jr.)
SS: 4 Troy Warner (Sr.), 20 Hayden Livingston (So.)
RC: 16 D’Angelo Mandell (Jr.), 11 Isaiah Herron (So.)
PK: 38 Jake Oldroyd (So.), 24 Ryan Rehkow (Fr.)
P: 24 Ryan Rehkow (Fr.), 38 Jake Olrdoyd (So.)
KR: 25 Tyler Allgeier (So.), 4 Lopini Katoa (Jr.)
PR: 5 Dax Milne (Jr.), 18 Gunner Romney (Jr.)
H: 20 Hayden Livingston (So.), 3 Jaren Hall (So.)
LS: 54 Britton Hogan (So.), 60 Austin Riggs (Fr.)