When senior nose guard Romney Fuga graduated, the defensive line lost its cornerstone. Replacing the likes of Fuga was a key interest in spring camp.
“I think we’ll be really good on the defensive line,” said Bronson Kaufusi. “Eathyn [Manumaleuna] can play that position if needed, or he can be moved to the outside to play one of the defensive tackle positions. I’ll play one of the other defensive tackles, but if we can get someone to step up at nose guard, then Eathyn can play d-tackle. I think overall the defensive line is good shape.”
“Maybe if you were to say at what the starting lineup might look today on Media Day – that doesn’t mean I’ll be held to this on the first day against Virginia – if you look at a front three of Eathyn Manumaleuna, Bronson Kaufusi and Remington Peck, I feel really comfortable and confident,” said Coach Mendenhall. “They’re faster and more athletic as a group but not as experienced … Remington is the one that people might not know too much about, but he had a really good spring.”
According to Mendenhall, there is a chance that the starting three along the defensive line will turn out differently.
“The biggest concern now is to find depth at nose tackle,” said Mendenhall. “If we can find depth at nose, we’ll move Eathyn to end and then Remington will be third and rotate with Eathyn and Bronson if we have a couple of nose tackles emerge. If not, then Eathyn will play nose, so that’s the biggest thing to watch.”
The two players that coaches hoped would step up in the spring, which would then allow Manumaleuna to move to tackle, were Tuni Kanuch and Marques Johnson. However, Mendenhall said that didn’t happen.
“They may progress far enough in the fall, but we’ve added three others coming,” said Mendenhall. “There’s Kalolo Utu, a junior college player, and JonRyheem Peoples, who is 340 pounds and returns kicks in high school. Then there is Meti Taliauli, so there’s three giant bodies coming that are athletic. So, between five players, if we can find two that can possibly be a starter and a backup, then Eathyn can have some flexibility to play end.”
Meanwhile, the defense will have talented and well developed linebackers, both in the middle and on the outside.
“I believe our linebacking corps will be as strong, if not stronger, than any I’ve ever coached,” said Mendenhall, who had a very good group last year. “We have Kyle [Van Noy] and Spencer [Hadley], but then we really like Uani Unga, who will be replacing Uona Kaveinga at Mike, and right now Tyler Beck at Buck we like. He was kind of a surprise in spring, but we like him a lot.”
Seniors Uani Unga and Tyler Beck will bring an upgrade in the middle of BYU’s defense. In the secondary, Coach Mendenhall is also very pleased with the type of talent he’s returning.
“We have Craig Bills and Daniel Sorensen at safety and Jordan Johnson is back, so three of the four return in the secondary,” Coach Mendenhall said. “Then junior college players, two have a chance: Sam Lee – but also a freshman in Dallin Leavitt – and Robertson Daniel, so two junior college players and a possible freshman at the boundary corner. I'm not sure we’ll look much different than we did a year ago.”
Bills gave a similar assessment of this year’s secondary.
“I think you’ll see much the same things you did last year with the exception of Preston Hadley at the boundary position,” he said. “The one thing I think will distinguish us from last year is we’ll be more experienced. So, we’ll have guys back there that have been in the program for a while, but will also have a lot of smarts when it comes to defending the pass and run.”
While Johnson will man the field side, the only mystery will be who will lock down the boundary position.
“Coach Howell will find someone to lock down the boundary position,” said Sorensen. “I'm not really worried about it because he’ll have someone ready by the start of the season.”
“We have Mike [Hague] that can play that position and he’s coming back,” said Bills. “He’s someone that we all trust and knows the defense. In the past we’ve had guys come in and start and do well. This year we’ll have some junior college guys coming in like Robertson Daniel and Sam Lee competing at that position along with Mike Hague. We’re not really worried about that.”
Coach Mendenhall admits that while Coach Anae feels his offense might not be at the level he has in mind, it was very difficult to stop regardless.
“We couldn’t stop it in the spring,” Mendenhall said. “And it wasn’t that we didn’t try. As a program we chose not to play some of our better players, but our defensive staff every day was trying to figure out how and didn’t have any success. So, that indication to me was the best predictor so far if you’re saying why do I feel confident that it will work. We already have a good defense and we couldn’t stop it, not consistently, and I like that.”
The results that came out of Coach Anae’s offensive production during spring camp are still felt within the program today.
“The respect that it generated from the defensive staff to the defensive players to the offensive players, there became one way,” said Mendenhall. “And in many cases, I believe the offensive players worked at a higher capacity and longer than the defensive players in spring. If you were to say, ‘What had to happen in order for the team to be united in a common goal?’ – that was it. If the production follows, that would be a pretty powerful thing. And that’s what I'm looking forward to.”