Cougar defense has a new rival

Defenses are supposed to be tough, real tough. And at BYU, that's what you have under Coach Mendenhall. Last year his defense was highly rated and this year he expects to improve upon that standing. His group of Cougar defenders, however, have found a new sheriff in town who is equally tough and just as nasty.

That sheriff is Coach Anae, and he's building an offense with a nasty defensive mentality. Coach Anae wields a hammer and he's constantly pounding it, the ring of which can be heard in his booming voice. There is accountability now of the highest degree.

"I think you have coaches that push them to that next level, kind of like the coaches we have on defense," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "Everyone's on the same page communication-wise preaching and teaching the same things, the same values and the same effort part, so it's neat to see it on both sides and see it develop with the offensive guys."

The added intensity from the offensive coaches has changed the mentality of the offensive players. Coach Holliday once said, ‘I believe they reflect the coach that coaches them, so I'm going to approach them a certain way so that they'll approach their position and field in similar fashion.' This mantra runs through every offensive coach and is summed up by Coach Anae's ‘Go hard and fast' mantra, which now is creating a rivalry.

"It's starting to mesh and you're getting more continuity and rivalry going on even though it's spring and we're still friends," said Van Noy. "It's just changed the whole environment to have the mentality the same. It's good."

Although Van Noy has been used sparingly – if at all – in spring camp so far, he's seen the vision that's being constructed under the offensive staff. He's seen how an unpolished offense still in its infancy has stressed this top-rated defense.

"Yeah, it's hard to defend what they're kind of doing, the tempo, the players that they have that are able to run it," said Van Noy. "They have running quarterbacks, they have the skill guys to do it, and good running backs and an o-line that's getting better and better every day. When it's all said and done I wouldn't want to defend them with just a week's notice any given Saturday. It's going to be hard."

Switching gears to the defensive side of the ball, Coach Mendenhall is currently looking for a few players to step up and fill some vacant positions. The goal is always to get better, but can BYU have a similar defensive performance this year with a more difficult schedule?

"My personal opinion is you can do anything if you put your mind to it," Van Noy said. "It's filling those pieces that we've lost, and so when we get to fall camp we can start talking about it. Right now it's still sort of premature to say. I hope so."

In order to match last year's performance, BYU will have to upgrade the level of talent while having the same level of position I.Q. the previous players possessed. Then, the defense must get the same level of effort from those new players.

"I think you hit all the three points," said Van Noy. "I think we have good players here, and I think the athleticism is getting better with the recruiting that we are doing. It's just a matter of the effort part and getting everyone clicking on the same page. There's a high level of expectations playing in Coach Mendenhall's defense. It's not easy, it's complicated, and there's a lot of calls to be made, but when you have those calls memorized [and have] the talent and the effort, everyone plays fast. That's what we saw last year and that's what we'll see this year."

Two of those talented players with less experience will be middle linebackers Uani Unga and Manoa Pikula, who've waited in the wings and are now ready to burst onto the scene.

"I think they're going to differ just because you have newer guys that fill those middle positions and then the outside guys, we both came back," Van Noy said about the linebackers. "I think those younger guys [Unga and Pikula] are going to fill in those positions well. I think collectively we're going to be fine. I mean, everyone that's played those positions has been here for three or four years, so it's an advantage for us to have them know the system where we can just put them in and let them loose. I think they're going to fill in just fine."

While middle linebackers Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga performed admirably last season, the size and athleticism jumps up a notch with Unga and Pikula in the middle. In fact, the linebacker corps has the potential – if Unga and Pikula can attain the same level of position I.Q. as Ogletree and Kaveinga – to be better this year.

"I think Uani Unga has played just awesome," Van Noy said. "He's our team leader and he's kind of our spokesman at middle backer. I think he's going to be really good. Spencer [Hadley] is back and Alani [Fua] is back and he's playing really good. I think Jherremya [Leuta-Douyere] is playing really good as well. I would say all of them are playing exceptionally well. It will all be shown one day here soon."

However, BYU's defense also lost defensive lineman Ezekiel Ansah, who is projected to be as high as the fifth pick in the upcoming NFL draft. But, the defensive line also had Bronson Kaufusi back for Monday's practice, after he missed the first week of spring camp while playing with the basketball team.

"It was like, ‘Oh, Bronson's back! Go back into the motion,'" said Van Noy with a smile. "He's just another guy that can get us better, and another guy that can help us out and is a veteran and can help out the d-lineman. I mean, I think that's what's helped us out the most. He's been here and can help out the younger guys get better at the d-line position."

The biggest question is who will play Romney Fuga's position at the highly important, but highly underrated, nose guard spot.

"I still think he's the most valuable player on our team last year, him and Riley Stephensen," said Van Noy about Fuga. "I believe so. It's just the learning process of understanding the two-gap rule and being that anchor of the defense. Romney did it. He's the most humble player that position, and he understood that if he didn't win, it messes up the whole scheme that we run here."

So far, Tuni Kanuch and Marques Johnson have been the two battling it out in the middle. Eathyn Manumaleuna is returning and in time will join the line once again. Although still young and unproven in games, Theodore King is having a good early spring camp.

"We can't necessarily get overconfident of the year we had," said Van Noy. "We have to start from scratch. It's a new year, new team, new players and we have to continue to stay hungry. The old guys and new guys have to step up, so it's kind of like a cycle that will continue when we leave. We have a strong foundation now and so it's time to get the ball rolling."

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