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BYU Football Midseason Report Card: Grading The Cougars Defense

BYU football players Zac Dawe, Isaiah Kaufusi, and Khyiris Tonga have been some of the top players on the Cougar defense at the midway point of the 2020 season. (BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

PROVO, Utah – Part two of the BYU Football midseason report card. This time I’m dishing out grades to a BYU defense that is eighth nationally in scoring defense (14.0) and ninth in total defense (288.0).

BYU sits at 5-0 for the first time since 2008, nationally-ranked, and they look to be in a great spot to win a lot more games on its currently scheduled 10-game slate.

BYU Football: Midseason Report Card for the Defense

Let’s dive into the grades for the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line

The decision by Khyiris Tonga to turn down the NFL and return to BYU has been a success for both the Cougar defensive line and Tonga himself. His presence has elevated the level of play for BYU’s defensive line and he appears to be playing like a player who will his name called in the NFL Draft next April.

From production to leadership, Tonga knows this is the season to get him paid. When Payton Wilgar committed a personal foul penalty against LA Tech, Tonga made sure to tell Wilgar not to do that. Holding players accountable is the type of leadership BYU has been lacking for some time. Since that exchange with Tonga, Wilgar hasn’t committed a penalty since.

Tonga makes up two of the sacks this season from the BYU defensive line. A group that has produced 11 sacks to date through five games.

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, who works with the defensive line, doesn’t define success by just sacks. Still, it has definitely gone a long way towards this group making strides this season.

Speaking of strides, the most improved player at the midway point of the season might be Zac Dawe. Dawe has racked up 18 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack this season. The former wrestler from Pleasant Grove has had to navigate many challenges to play for his dream school and now he’s growing into a star at defensive end.

Bracken El-Bakri has been a stalwart and true freshman Tyler Batty is quickly emerging as the next big thing as a pass rusher along BYU’s defensive line.

The impressive aspect of this group’s production is that they haven’t had their full allotment of personnel. Atunaisa Mahe has been out all season. Lorenzo Fauatea was lost due to a season-ending injury and Uriah Leiataua has only played sparingly since suffering an injury in fall camp. On top of that, Khyiris Tonga was lost due to a non-COVID illness against Houston.

Reserves Caden Haws, Alden Tofa, Gabe Summers, Seleti Fevaleaki, and Earl Tuioti-Mariner have stepped up to fill the absences. Highlighting the depth Sitake and Tuiaki have accumulated into their program in the trenches.

My Grade: A-

Linebackers

BYU’s top three linebackers have been as good as advertised this season. Senior Isaiah Kaufusi paired with sophomores Keenan Pili, and Payton Wilgar is the top three in tackles 32, 32, and 20.

Like many within this multiple BYU defense, this trio of linebackers is used in various ways, from dropping back into coverage to going up off the edge as a fourth lineman. Isaiah Kaufusi has made significant leaps in his game as a pass rusher. The 2018 Utah game was always viewed as a career highlight for Kaufusi, but this year he has elevated his play and put together some impressive games against UTSA and Houston.

Keenan Pili is as automatic of a tackler as BYU has on defense this season. Payton Wilgar’s combination of size and speed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds has made him a potential mismatch for opposing offenses wherever he lines up on the field.

Max Tooley has gone under the radar this season, largely because his role has shifted more from linebacker to being a fourth edge rusher in many games. Whenever Tooley is on the field, he is making an impact it seems. Tooley has 13 tackles and an interception.

Pepe Tanuvasa was a scout team star last season and he burst onto the scene in the season-opener against Navy, leading the team with eight tackles. He’s been used sparingly since that cross-country trip against his old team.

This is one of the few positions where BYU hasn’t had to dig into their depth much. Players such as Ben Bywater, Drew Jensen, and Jackson Kaufusi provide competitive depth.

My Grade: B+

Cornerback

BYU has the ability to play man-to-man coverage this season. That’s a big step for a program that most fans would say is known for being lined up seven yards off the line of scrimmage. Senior Chris Wilcox is back from injury, and he hasn’t given up a big play (15 yards or more) to an opponent through four games played.

Wilcox has the ability to play in the NFL. But he might be one of the players that benefit the most from the blanket waiver that the NCAA is giving to student-athletes this season. If Wilcox returned in 2021, he could be a player that hears his name called during the NFL Draft. He’s showing to have the skills necessary to be a lockdown cornerback to go along with his talents as a music producer off the field. You’ve probably heard some of his beats on TikTok. But that’s a topic for another day.

When Wilcox was a freshman in 2016, he was a nervous player trying to find his identity. It’s tough for freshmen to make an impact right away, but some guys are just built differently. Micah Harper has earned three starts already this season and has shown to be a good tackler. There were moments against UTSA where Harper gave up some big plays, but that’s to be expected for a true freshman. He’s ahead of schedule in his player development and appears to have a bright future ahead of him.

Keenan Ellis was one of the most improved players in the cornerback room this off-season, according to Jernaro Gilford. Ellis has started two games this year, and he has yet to commit a penalty.

D’Angelo Mandell has played sparingly due to injuries; he has starting experience when he is 100 percent healthy. Shamon Willis, Hayden Livingston, Isaiah Herron, and Caleb Christensen round out a solid unit’s depth.

My Grade: B

Safety/Hybrid Positions

When talking about the safeties for BYU in 2020, you start and end with Troy Warner and Zayne Anderson. Both are mainstays on the backend of BYU’s defense. Warner leads BYU with two interceptions this season, and Zayne Anderson is sixth on the team in tackles with 16.

This is the first year these two have teamed up at safety. According to Warner earlier this season, “the two have great chemistry together.” They’ve only given up one big passing play this season and that came last week against Houston.

BYU has incorporated a lot of hybrid positions this year to get the best 11 players on the field at all times. Chaz Ah You was going to man one of those spots, but he had surgery on a preexisting injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

Kavika Fonua and George Udo have emerged in these hybrid roles that could see these guys lining up at safety, in the box at linebacker, or cornerback. Udo has two sacks this season, showing off that versatility that made him an intriguing prospect in high school, where he was a wide receiver and defensive end. Fonua, BYU’s leading tackler a year ago in a full-time linebacker role, has two tackles for loss this season.

Jared Kapisi is one of the top reserves in the safety room and was rotating in key moments of the Houston game with Anderson.

My Grade: B+

Specialists

BYU has to be pleased with the play from Jake Oldroyd and Ryan Rehkow. Oldroyd has been perfect this season field goal attempts, and Rehkow looks to be the best punter BYU has had since Riley Stephenson in 2012, giving the Cougars a weapon that can turn field position in the third phase of the game.

My Grade: A

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 p.m., KSL Newsradio). Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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