There are a lot of up-and-coming new faces in the mix at defensive line, but one thing is certain: the defensive line will be big, physical and ready to play come next season.
"We've got a lot of new guys, young guys and transfers really stepping it up," Eathyn Manumaleuna said. "They're just doing really well right now. It seems like everyone is starting to play more as one. [Hebron] Loni Fangupo is learning a lot of new stuff since he's come from USC. Travis [Tuiloma], who is really strong, is really becoming a force in the middle, and once Romney [Fuga] gets back, that will only add to our depth. Matt Putnam will be another returning starter, and then we have Graham [Rowley], who is really getting things down and can go after it."
The newest addition to the defensive line corps, Fangupo’s experience so far as a football player at BYU has been a real eye-opener. Manumaleuna hinted at the notion that maybe Fangupo thought he would be taking a step down in terms of program quality.
"It's really hit him hard because he didn't really know what he was going to get from this program," Manumaleuna said. "I don't think he really understood what we do here and the culture of BYU. He's come a long way just from the short amount of time he's been here. He's doing good, and once he gets everything together he'll be really good."
There was a time when Manumaleuna was switched from defensive end to nose guard last season. He was a bit reserved about making the switch, and at the time would have rather stayed at defensive end. Although he'll do what is asked of him by the coaches, Manumaleuna would like to play nose guard again if the opportunity arises.
"I remember how I said I didn't want to play nose guard and would rather stay at defensive end," Manumaleuna said. "You know, after last year stepping in and playing the nose guard position, I wouldn't mind playing nose guard again."
Many view the nose guard position to be a non-glorious one, but Manumaleuna begs to differ.
"It's mostly because the schemes that Coach Mendenhall plays, his defense and how he does his stunts in the front. It's just a lot of fun how he tries to confuse the o-line. It's just fun playing his scheme at the nose guard position. But playing nose guard up front, two-gap all the time is also hard, you know, but it's also a lot of fun with what we do."
Left defensive end is where Manumaleuna is currently slated to play this upcoming season, and it's a position that has its advantages as well.
"Being on the outside at defensive end is fun too. I like it. Coach Kaufusi is really experienced and knows what he's doing. He's been there and done that many times. He's been there at every level, and so nothing but good things comes from Coach Kaufusi when he speaks.
"Shaun Nua is doing really well with both the nose guards and the ends," Manumaleuna continued. "He's also had experience at every level, and so he's been there and done that too, and has been helping out at both positions. What more can you ask [for] when you have two coaches teaching you who've played at every level?"
A wiser and more experienced Cougar defensive lineman, Manumaleuna has played every position over his career thus far. Knowing what he knows and having the experience that he has, could he actually coach the defensive line?
"No, not me, not personally," said Manumaleuna with a laugh. "I play where they need me, whether it's in the middle or outside left or outside right. I just do whatever is needed to help the team out and do my best. It's good though having played all the different positions. You know, maybe I could coach the d-line. Nah, I'm just teasing, but maybe."
Taking a look across the current defensive line, there is a noticeable difference in body types. The players now closer resemble the big, stout defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the notion being that the bigger three linemen would be used more for clogging up the run gaps to allow the linebackers to rush the passer. However, Manumaleuna says this is not necessarily the case.
"I think we're going to do a lot of both," said Manumaleuna. "Coach Mendenhall's scheme and his style of how we're going to play in this defense, sometimes it's run stop and sometimes it's just go and go. Based on the calls, it's going to be both rather than just us big guys now being run stuffers. It's going to be based on the situation that's needed, but we have guys that can do both. Then you throw in some of the linebackers we have, and it's a great combination."
So what can BYU fans expect to see more of from the defensive line this year? Well, the run-stop game will improve due to the larger, more physical bodies across the line (BYU was ranked 119th in run defense last year prior to Coach Mendenhall taking over the defense). Greater power across the front will also pose a challenge for passing teams.
"Definitely the run stop and collapsing the pocket to get to the quarterback – I think those things you'll see more of from this defensive line. It's also a defensive line that's much faster and more physical than last year. I think we're also a lot more in tune with what we need to do. It didn't take half the season to recognize what we need to do and how we fit into the scheme. I think we're doing really, really well with everything and it's going to be a much better defensive line you'll see this year than last year."