COUGAR TRACKS

Projecting BYU Football’s Post-Spring Defensive Depth Chart

Apr 8, 2022, 2:53 PM | Updated: Apr 9, 2022, 8:32 pm
BYU Football - Kaleb Hayes...
SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 18: Kaleb Hayes #18 of the BYU Cougars warms up prior to a game against the UAB Blazers during the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl at Independence Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Blazers defeated the Cougars 31-28. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

PROVO, Utah – There’s a quiet optimism around the BYU football program regarding the defensive unit. Many of the questions surrounding BYU in 2022 will lie on the defensive side.

Statistically, BYU’s defense last year was average. The Cougars were 74th nationally in total defense (388.2 yards per game) and 51st in scoring defense (24.7). It was the first time BYU was outside the top 50 in scoring defense since Ilaisa Tuiaki took over as defensive coordinator (2016).

On the positive side, BYU was in the top 50 in takeaways per game, averaging 1.5 per contest. That was good for 42nd nationally.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake wants to see the big plays on defense happen more often this season in 2022.

They’ve got the chance to do that with so much continuity returning.

Fifteen of BYU’s top 16 tacklers from last season return, plus the Cougars have reinforcements coming in from both the high school and transfer portal ranks to bring competitive depth.

When projecting BYU’s defensive depth chart, keep this in mind, the scheme from week to week could change based on the opponent and many players will see action.

Tuiaki and Sitake have shown they are willing to give snaps to many players throughout a season. So if someone isn’t listed, don’t worry; they’ll probably see action.

Also, for this projection, I’m rolling with four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. I know that is 12 spots, one more than the 11 spots allowed, but again, BYU’s defense plays a lot of guys and BYU’s defense feels these guys are versatile enough to play various positions. For example, when Sitake was asked during spring about his secondary he said, “We have cornerbacks who can play safety and safeties who can play cornerback.”

Nonetheless, here’s my defensive depth chart for BYU football coming out of spring practices.

You can read my projections for the offensive depth chart here.

Defensive Line

Starters: Tyler Batty, Gabe Summers, Atunaisa Mahe -OR- Caden Haws, Earl Tuioti-Mariner

Key backups: Blake Mangelson, Alden Tofa, John Nelson, Lorenzo Fauatea, Aisea Moa, Fisher Jackson

Notice a theme in BYU’s defensive line? Everyone listed except heralded freshman Aisea Moa played last season. Will the continuity in this group lends itself to greater production in 2022? That’s the hope BYU has this fall, as Tyler Batty appears to be the group star. Batty led BYU football in sacks last season with 3.5.

Earl Tuioti-Mariner returning for another season to take advantage of the free COVID year was an underrated move for BYU’s defensive line. Tuioti-Mariner is one of the best pass rushers in the group, and now he’s fully healthy. He’s the elder statesman of the program, being the final link to the Bronco Mendenhall regime. Yes, Tuioti-Mariner signed to play for Mendenhall in 2014. But, his maturity and experience should be valuable if he stays healthy.

Atunaisa Mahe was kept out of spring ball as he gears up for the fall. He will battle with Caden Haws at the nose spot, but both will play a ton.

A name to keep an eye on in this group is John Nelson. Nelson was a projection-based signee out of Salem Hills High School, but he proved to be an instant contributor last season. The same goes for Juab’s Blake Mangelson, who at 6-foot-5, 250-pounds is likely the top reserve behind Batty at the defensive end spot.

Losing Logan Fano to an ACL injury was a big setback for the defensive line as Fano appeared poised to be a starter as a freshman. BYU head coach Kalani Sitake didn’t rule out the possibility of Fano still playing in four games to use his redshirt. Still, any expectation of him being a significant contributor in 2022 seems unrealistic at the moment.

Linebackers

Starters: Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili, Max Tooley -OR- Ben Bywater

Backups: Pepe Tanuvasa, Morgan Pyper, Michael Daley

If BYU’s linebackers are at full strength in the fall, they could have three NFL players in this room. Both Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili were held out of spring as they continued recovering from their surgeries last fall.

Sitake said to close out spring ball that he expects Wilgar and Pili to be ready for fall camp.

 

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A post shared by Payton Wilgar (@paytonwilgar)

When Wilgar and Pili were on the field last season, they were vital pieces to BYU’s 6-0 start. However, once Pili went out, BYU’s defensive production lost its heart and soul. Then Wilgar played through a nagging shoulder injury all season, which ultimately led to coaches shutting him down in November.

During spring ball, BYU played a lot of two linebackers in a 4-2-5 alignment. Ben Bywater, the top tackler from last season at 102 tackles, was the top performer in spring. The former Olympus High grad is entering his fourth year in the program, and physically he put in a lot of work in the weight room.

Pepe Tanuvasa switched from outside edge to a full-time linebacker again. The former Navy transfer was one of the best pass rushers BYU football had last season. In 2020, Tanuvasa was a leading tackler against his old Midshipmen teammates.

Hybrid Spots

Cinco: Chaz Ah You, George Udo

Nickel: Caleb Christensen, Jacob Boren

BYU has a lot of different hybrid positions on their weekly depth charts. I won’t go through the chore of listing all of them, but I did use two, “CINCO” and “NICKEL.” When BYU football lines up in a 4-2-5 alignment, you’ll see these players on the field.

Chaz Ah You is the most noteworthy guy in this spot. His role is expected to be a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Ah You was held out of spring practices to prepare for the fall. Despite a hamstring injury that kept him out of the final five games, Ah You was sixth on the team with 39 tackles last season. In addition, he had a first quarter interception in the win over rival Utah.

Before spring practices, Caleb Christensen entered his name in the Transfer Portal. He is still enrolled at BYU and is a crucial piece at nickel and the return game on special teams.

Jacob Boren saw a lot of time in spring at the cornerback spot, but his game reps have primarily come at safety and nickel. Boren is one of the fastest players on the team; he’ll likely be in the two-deep again this fall.

Cornerback

Starters: Kaleb Hayes & D’Angelo Mandell

Backups: Jakob Robinson & Isaiah Herron

BYU’s cornerback room is slightly thinner than many expected right now. That’s primarily due to a pair of defensive backs medically retiring in Keenan Ellis and Shamon Willis.

At the top of the cornerback depth, though, is a pair of seniors who people around BYU’s program believe could be NFL prospects next season in Oregon State transfer Kaleb Hayes and fifth-year player D’Angelo Mandell.

Hayes might be the best of the group as he had a breakthrough performance last season on the road against Utah State. From there, his confidence grew week by week and now he’s a star of BYU’s secondary.

Tuiaki moved Jakob Robinson from nickel to cornerback. Last season, a former Utah State transfer, Robinson was a freshman All-American producing three interceptions at nickel. In a perfect scenario, for BYU football to get the best 11 on the field, a combination of Vanderbilt grad transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally and the four high school signees during the February period come in and perform at a high level right away.

That would give BYU’s defensive staff the chance to put Robinson back at nickel and have the cornerback spot handled by the seniors and a wave of youngsters who will carry the Cougar secondary into the Big 12 era.

Safety

Starters: Malik Moore & Ammon Hannemann -OR- Hayden Livingston

Backups: Micah Harper, Matt Criddle

Malik Moore silenced any critics last season with his play at free safety, recording 33 tackles and three interceptions. The San Diego native arrived at BYU as a developmental skill position player on the offensive side and has turned into a leader on defense in 2022.

Moore is the one lock at safety. The other spot at strong safety is up for grabs and could change depending on the opponent BYU faces during the season. Ammon Hannemann and Hayden Livingston appear to be the top two in contention for strong safety.

 

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Like all of the siblings in his family, Hannemann is a good athlete. He’s in his fourth year with the program but is still only a redshirt sophomore, thanks to the free COVID year in 2020.

Hayden Livingston enters his fifth season at BYU. The former quarterback from Rigby, Idaho, was one of the first PWO commits in the Kalani Sitake era and has turned into a solid performer in BYU’s secondary. Last season, he sealed the victory for BYU over upset-minded Arizona with an interception.

Matt Criddle returned for another season after receiving his senior blanket last season. Criddle last year saw a lot of action in the final four games of the season.

Micah Harper returns from an ACL injury that caused him to miss last season. Harper was a star freshman at cornerback in 2020. When he signed with BYU out of Arizona, Kalani Sitake drew comparisons to former BYU football DB Dayan Lake for Harper. Like Lake, Harper follows a similar trajectory, showing his versatility as both a cornerback and now safety.

Throughout spring practices, Harper lined up at the safety spot.

Specialists

Kicker: Jake Oldroyd; Backup: Justen Smith

Punter: Ryan Rehkow; Backup: Jake Oldroyd

Holder: Ryan Rehkow; Backup: Hayden Livingston

Long Snapper: Austin Riggs, Britton Hogan, Dalton Riggs

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.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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