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Ilaisa Tuiaki - BYU Football
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BYU Football DC Ilaisa Tuiaki Excited For Returning Personnel Plus Rising Newcomers

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki speaks to the Cougar Club on National Signing Day. (BYU Photo Courtesy)

PROVO, Utah – BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki enters his fifth season leading the Cougars defense. Through four years, Tuiaki has produced two top 25 defenses, but last year was a step back statistically.

BYU returns seven starters from last year’s defense and pairs them up with some new faces who made an impression during a shortened spring football in March.

The task for Tuiaki’s defense will be to improve from the 68th ranking in total defense last season and to create more havoc on a consistent basis. For improved results, Tuiaki and his defensive staff are making some changes with four defensive linemen expected to be lined up in the trenches in the Cougars base defensive package. A look BYU used frequently in 2016, Tuiaki’s first year as defensive coordinator at BYU.

Schemes and play calls are one thing, but talent usually trumps all when it comes to having success in college football. For Tuiaki, there’s excitement about the defensive personnel he has coming back in 2020. Along with some of the new faces who are starting to rise up the depth chart as he noted in a recent Zoom call from BYU athletics.

Returning Personnel to watch from the BYU defense

Defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga turning down the NFL for one more year at BYU came as a surprise, but there’s potential for a huge payoff. The senior-to-be wants to be more reliable and be able to play in critical situations. Tuiaki wants Tonga to play around 320 to 329 pounds this season.

“It was evident in the spring that he’s just a difference-maker for us,” Tuiaki said. “Getting him and Matt [Bushman] back I think is going to be really huge for our team. But when he’s in the game on defense there’s definitely a difference he makes and we’re going to be really excited about him. He’s just a big, strong guy that’s playing with a lot more confidence than before.”

Defensive backs Chris Wilcox and Troy Warner return for their redshirt senior seasons. Both have battled injuries the past few years, but are ready to bounce back in 2020. Both players could end up being two of BYU’s top NFL Draft prospects in the 2021 Drafts with big seasons from both.

“[Wilcox] is running again, his legs are still a little behind him but he’s going to be fine coming back in fall camp and we’re excited to have him back,” said Tuiaki. “Troy [Warner] is back with us. Gonna be really excited to get his skills back and his competitiveness.”

Other notable returners highlighted by Tuiaki include defensive backs D’Angelo Mandell and Isaiah Herron along with linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili and safeties Max Tooley and Hayden Livingston.

BYU Football newcomers to watch according to Tuiaki

Most of BYU’s spots on the depth chart on both sides of the ball are mostly known because of many upperclassmen returning. But don’t be surprised if some new faces emerge in the two-deep for the week one matchup against Utah on September 3rd.

Tuiaki highlighted a pair of true freshmen in Caleb Christensen and Fisher Jackson that showed well during spring football on the defensive side.

Christensen, a late addition out of Sky View High School in the Cache Valley, greyshirted last season. He enrolled at BYU this past January and was seeing second-team reps at cornerback at times during the six spring practices. One of the fastest players in the state of Utah in the class of 2019, Christensen’s speed makes up for his smaller stature at 5-foot-9, 193-pounds. Don’t be surprised if Christensen doesn’t make an impact on special teams as well.

Like Christensen, Herriman High’s Fisher Jackson also greyshirted last year before enrolling at BYU this past January. A preferred walk-on commit out of high school, Jackson was a wide receiver/tight end/safety at Herriman.

Now Jackson is up to 252-pounds after a year to get physically ready to compete in a college football program and he has a chance to make an impact right away in his first season at BYU. Just like his old high school teammate at Herriman, Blake Freeland, who was once a quarterback in high school and is now a rising star at offensive tackle for the Cougars.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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