The BYU linebackers pose for a photo at 2020 fall camp. The group returns several starters from last season. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Veteran linebackers look to take care of business for BYU football

Replacing eight starters on defense is no easy task, especially in a defensive unit that ranked among the nation’s best a year ago. However, amid the winds of change in the secondary and defensive line, BYU’s linebacker corps stands as an anchor of experience on defense.

With the notable exception of Isaiah Kaufusi, who led the Cougars in both tackles and sacks last season before heading to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, BYU returns the bulk of its main contributors at linebacker for 2021.

“We’re deep with guys that have experience and found a way to make an impact on the team last year,” BYU linebackers coach Kevin Clune said. “All these guys found a way last year to make plays, so I couldn’t be happier with the experience and depth in the group.”

That depth was strengthened this past season as BYU’s sizable average margin of victory allowed ample time for substitutions on defense, placing more players in situations to contribute. Those opportunities for legitimate game experience have given the linebackers more confidence in their collective playmaking abilities as a unit going forward.

“We were blessed last year with our strength of schedule because there was so much valuable time for backups to get reps, so we’re not too worried about those guys stepping in,” sophomore Kennan Pili said.

Following Kaufusi last season as top tacklers for the Cougars were Pili and fellow sophomore Payton Wilgar, both of whom Clune credits as the emerging veteran leaders within the group.

“Keenan and Payton are tremendous examples of hard work and taking care of business,” Clune said. “They have that drive and vision of what needs to get done, and they’re corralling guys to get things done the right way.”

Pili racked up 72 tackles in 2020, with Wilgar adding 57 of his own along with a forced fumble. Sophomore Max Tooley, the owner of 44 tackles and an interception last season, sees the group’s past success as a chance to take on more responsibility.

Also included in this year’s linebackers group are sophomore Drew Jensen, freshman Ben Bywater, and Josh Wilson, the younger brother of former BYU quarterback and No. 2 NFL draft pick Zach Wilson.

“We’ve understood that this is the year that the linebackers really need to step up,” Tooley said. “We have the most experience. We need to step up in helping our defense succeed in the best way that we can.”

Stepping up brings competition within the loaded depth chart, which Wilgar believes brings the best out of everyone.

“Everyone comes to practice ready to compete and be their best, and that makes us a better team,” Wilgar said. “Iron sharpens iron.”

Wilgar has also been impressed with Clune, who enters his first season as linebackers coach at BYU with 28 years of total coaching experience under his belt. Before his official hire, Clune volunteered as a defensive advisor for the Cougars in 2020, where he became familiar with the players he coaches today.

“I like (Clune’s) coaching style,” Wilgar said. “He’ll tell you how it is. If you’re weak at something, he’ll tell you, and he’ll tell you how to get better.”

While Clune had a front-row seat to the thrills of the past season and brought back the majority of his linebackers, he feels the rigorous upcoming schedule of quality opponents will allow the Cougars to be “a whole new team”.

“The team will evolve together into what they’re going to be,” Clune said. “Even if we had everybody back, this is still a different team with a new schedule and different situations.”

Such situations include putting pressure on the quarterback, the seemingly lone Achilles heel for BYU’s fourth-ranked scoring defense last season. The Cougars managed just 26 sacks, with a mere 5.5 coming from the linebackers. While some believe the Cougars should be more aggressive in their pass rush, Clune holds to an enlarged perspective.

“Maybe last year we played a bit conservative, but the job is to win the game and keep points off the board,” Clune said. “Next year is a whole different set of tasks, so we might have to do some new things and we might have to do some things the same.”

With seven Power 5 opponents and other high-powered offenses on the schedule this fall, the linebackers look to be the strength of a defense that maintains its past excellence.

“Every position has people stepping up left and right, but for the whole defense we have the guys to be the strength,” Pili said. “We’ve got a lot of talent.”

“They’re hungry to make plays and ready for the task, so it’s a good situation,” Clune said. “As coaches, we’ve tried to clearly define what needs to get done and their roles, now they just need to go out and get it done. I have a lot of faith that this team can take care of business.”

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