This is my year

The middle linebacker position is getting an overhaul following the graduation of Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga. The next two to step up and have the inside track at starting are Uani Unga and Manoa Pikula. Could this new tandem of hard-hitters surpass the exploits of those that took the field last year? That is a prospect that tends to lean towards real possibility.

For his senior year, Brandon Ogletree raked up some very impressive numbers. He recorded 50 solo tackles and 52 assisted tackles during his final year at BYU. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings behind him was none other than Manoa Pikula. Now, it's Pikula's time to shine.

"I've been waiting two years, man," said Pikula with a devilish smile. "I'm just going to let everything out. Like I said, I've been waiting two long years and that was frustrating. Just like my dad told me, ‘This is your year.' I'm going to let them know why I should have been playing, you know what I mean? This is my chance and I'm going to capitalize on it."

Pikula is a fierce competitor who wants to play. In fact, his competitive drive is so intense that it affected him in how he looked at his teammates who played in front of him.

"It was so frustrating for me at first that I didn't even care about them," Pikula said of Ogletree and Kaveinga. "But as time went by I realized I had some growing to do. Tree came to me and he's a great guy, you know what I mean? He taught me everything. He taught me how to be a student of the game. I'm not taking away that he wasn't an athlete, but he taught me that there is more than just speed and being physical.

"He taught me that you can be a student of the game by watching film and studying offenses and player tendencies to beat people too. He was so smart that he was always in the right spot before the play would even happen because he watched so much film. That's what I'm doing now. I'm studying every little move that I make just to make my stance quicker. I have a lot of stuff to work on."

Pikula will play the Buck position while his counterpart Uani Unga will play the Mike position. The two will bring greater athleticism and speed to the middle linebacker position. But, will they bring as much position I.Q. to the defense?

"The thing … I like to bring to the defense is a lot of speed," Pikula said. "I feel like I know my position well, having been here over the past two years, but the one thing that I bring will be greater speed to the middle of the field. People just don't know."

What people also don't know is what they have in Kaveinga's replacement in senior Uani Unga, who transferred from Oregon State. At 6 feet 1 inch and 233 pounds, Unga is going to make BYU fans wish they had another year with him.

"Oh man, I've learned a lot from Uani," Pikula said. "I mean, when you watch the way he covers … I feel like he's going to have a breakout year this year. It's unfortunate that he's a senior this year but that doesn't mean anything. He's going to ball out this year. He's physical, he's fast and he's really smart too. He's another guy that's been waiting for his time and now it's come. This is his year. He's my partner and my trainer and is my partner when we train. I'm telling you, you have to watch out for Uani. I feel like that's the guy you should be talking to."

The Cougars will also have to replace some other talented defenders that graduated after last season, but there are some talented up-and-comers in the program.

"We definitely have a lot of talent coming in here, but it's not really just about talent. It's about how bad you want it," Pikula said. "We've got a lot of young talent coming in like Toloa'I [Ho Ching]. He's one of the new guys coming in. When he first came in, it didn't look like he served a mission! He's looking good! My cousin Tuni [Kanuch] is another one that's looking good at the nose guard position, and it's not that he's my cousin, but he's just killing it at nose. It's a spot he's never played before and he's hungry. He's going to do everything he can to get on the field."

Not long removed from his mission, Kanuch has been running with the first-team defense. This is surprising given two facts. First, BYU has had Marques Johnson in the program for a year, and prior to that he was at El Camino Community College for two years without taking a hiatus to serve a mission. We have to give Johnson some slack given the fact he was injured last year, which caused him to redshirt, but the fact that Kanuch can suit up and compete after a two-year layoff is indeed impressive.

Secondly, Kanuch is succeeding at a position that he didn't even play in high school.

"What's even more impressive is he went from offensive guard in high school to serving a two-year mission to now killing it at a new position at nose guard," Pikula said. "He running with the ones right now but he's still trying to learn. Him and A'i [Ho-Ching] came back stronger than ever. Tuni is squatting six plates and he is just naturally strong. It's the same with A'i."

Kanuch and Johnson are the two battling it out at nose guard to see who gets the leg up going into summer and then fall camp.

"Marques is looking good too," said Pikula. "It sucked that he got injured last year, and he's right in the mix of it all. I feel like him and Tuni are kind of battling it out right now. Tuni has a disadvantage because he doesn't know his position that well, but he's learning it quick. On his first day he didn't know his stance, but by the third day he had it down and was pushing guys around. Coaches were impressed with him and I'm happy for him. But Marques does his job and he does it good."

The biggest challenge for the newcomers is the tempo of the defense.

"They have to learn how to keep up with the tempo of the defense now that we're running it a lot faster," said Pikula. "I feel like if they would have came in last year they would have been able to keep up, but not this year. But they are just killing it out there."

There's a natural evolution that's occurring on the defensive side of the ball, and it's all generating from the offense.

"These a new defensive tempo that we have because as a team as a whole we're going to be quick," said Pikula while snapping his fingers. "The offense's tempo, they want to run a play every eight seconds. That's what we've been training in the offseason, so eight seconds we want to just go, go, go! We don't walk to a certain station, we run to a certain station. So, with the offense trying to get off the field quicker, our defense has to be more conditioned. They're pushing the tempo, so we have to push the tempo."

And that means a better conditioned defense and a situation where players are forced to read their keys much quicker. This means an quicker-processing defense that will be forced to play faster. The goal now is to match and exceed last year's No. 3 ranking in total defense.

"That's our personal goal," said Pikula. "I mean, no one wants to live in the shadow of last year's defense. We want to do better. It's not that we are disrespecting the guys on last year's defense, we just want to raise the bar. I feel like our defense is doing good but we don't have our key players in yet. Kyle [Van Noy] goes in and out and Spencer [Hadley] is hurt. We just got Bronson [Kaufusi] back but we've been doing alright without them. But when they come back and we're all together, I just feel like this defense starts clicking and running on all cylinders. I really think when we get all our guys back and everyone working together, this defense is going to be really, really good."


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