If BYU is going to have a top-five defense once again, it will need to have consistent, solid contributions from the defensive line.
Defensive success begins from the inside line, and extends out to “skill position” players, and without two of last season’s star defensive lineman, the Cougars will look to several players to step up this season. With the graduation of Romney Fuga and all-star Ziggy Ansah, sophomore Bronson Kaufusi and senior Eathyn Manumaleuna are the only two Cougars with substantial game experience.
Kaufusi was fresh off his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he joined the team last year, and Manumaleuna missed a good portion of the last year due to an injury he sustained early in the season.
Kaufusi is expected to step into the role left vacant by Ansah’s departure to the NFL. Manumaleuna’s role, however, is not as clearly defined. He has typically played on the outside for most of his time with BYU, rotating occasionally to play the nose tackle position often occupied by Romney Fuga.
No clear favorite at the nose tackle currently exists, leaving the possibility for Manumaleuna to play the nose tackle spot until another player steps up. Marques Johnson and Tuni Kanuch look like the front runners for the position.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall raved about Johnson in the opening days of camp.
“It will be by committee, if I had to say today,” Mendenhall said. “But Marques, he’s done a really nice job.”
Defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi is hoping someone steps up soon, which would allow Manumaleuna to go back to his natural spot on the end.
“We have some new guys coming in, three of them are nose guard. I need to find two guys, we were thin last year. We have Eathyn, I would love to leave him at the four-technique spot,” Kaufusi said prior to the start of fall camp. “If we have to play tomorrow Eathyn has to go inside and play that nose position. I’d like to find a couple more nose guards that can rotate at the nose position so we can move Eathyn out with Bronson and Remington Peck to get a nice rotation there, so I need two guys there.”
The defensive end rotation appears to be set and solid, with Kaufusi, Eathyn Manumaleuna and sophomore Remington Peck rotating the two end spots.
In reaching last season’s defensive prowess and success, Bronson Kaufusi thinks the less-experienced players will play a pivotal role.
“We have new people coming in so we start there. Then we just work on our technique,” Kaufusi said. “We may not be the biggest, fastest or strongest, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but if our technique is good enough we can beat anyone that lines up across from us.”
With the questions revolving around the nose position, it is no wonder it will be essential to break in new players and help them learn the scheme. In BYU’s base 3-4 defense, the nose is tasked with eating up blocks and clearing space for the linebackers to get to the quarterback. The scheme is designed to funnel running backs to the middle linebackers, thus allowing them to make plays.
In that regard, Fuga’s absence will be missed. His size often allowed him to take on two offensive lineman at a time, freeing up the linebackers and sometimes defensive ends to get into the backfield and blow up the play.
While it will be difficult for a new nose guard to make the same impact Fuga made, if they can get close to Fuga’s production level, there’s no reason to believe the defensive line can’t be just as effective as last year.