Middle linebacker progress report

BYU's No. 3 defense from last season lost senior middle linebackers Uona Kaveinga and Brandon Ogletree to graduation. Waiting in the wings are a few hungry, talented middle backers who know this is their time to shine. Coach Tidwell gives BYU fans a breakdown of how things are currently shaping up.

First-team unit

MLB Uani Unga: Senior, 6-1, 233 pounds

"Uani Unga is a lot like Manoa [Pikula]," said Coach Tidwell. "He's big, thick, strong, quick, but a little more vocal and a great leader. The team follows Uani and he's doing a great job with his leadership skills. He's a great reader of the offense and he's very physical. He played a little bit more and took more game reps than Manoa did last year, so he's a little bit more experienced than Manoa and, of course, he played up at Oregon State prior to coming here to BYU."

Unfortunately, this will be Unga's last season at BYU.

"Man, it would be nice to have one more year with him as a junior," Tidwell said with a sheepish smile as though trying not to give too much away. "But he's a senior and will add a lot to our defense this year. Man, he's savvy and has a good feel for where the ball will be. I think he's a special kid and a great young man. He's got a lot of great tools he works with. He's big, physical, quick and savvy. I really like what we have in Uani. He's going to hit some people."

Skill set observations: Unga is big, very physical, smart, plays well in open space, moves well from side to side and has a nose for the ball. Athletically, he's a step up from Uona Kaveinga, but might not have the same position I.Q. that Kaveinga had. If Unga can attain that, the middle linebacker position will have made a jump up in terms of prowess.

BLB Manoa Pikula: Sophomore, 6-1, 235 pounds

"Manoa is physical, he's thick, athletic and he just needs experience on the field," said Coach Tidwell. "This is a good time for him in spring ball. He's improved from week one to week two. He has to be a little more vocal and that will come with more confidence and experience and with more reps. I'm confident in Manoa. He's bigger than some of our other backers that we've had in the past and he's just as quick. So, once he learns everything and gets a feel for the game, and the experience, I'm excited to have him for the next three years."

Skill set observations: Thick, quick side-to-side movement, physical, plays downhill, good in space, decent in coverage, fast for his size, light on his feet, very strong, plays with very good pad level, outstanding nose for the ball. Needs to be more vocal, and that will come with more reps with the ones.

Second-team unit

MLB Austen Jorgensen: Senior, 6-2, 239 pounds

"Right now Austen Jorgensen is backing up Uani Unga and he's a senior," said Tidwell. "He'll be playing next to Tyler Beck and, in fact, they're both seniors. It's great to have them back. It's great to have their leadership and smarts as well. They'll do a good job of teaching the young guys and pushing Uani and Manoa as well. It's good to have that experience."

Skill set observations: Big, very strong, very good leadership, experienced, decent position understanding, plays downhill. Good instincts and decent in covering ground side to side and in pass coverage in space.

BLB Tyler Beck: Senior, 6-1, 220 pounds

"Tyler Beck is backing Manoa up right now," Coach Tidwell said. "He's experienced and he's smart and he's pushing Manoa right now really hard. Tyler is looking really good and I've got a lot of confidence in him right now, so those two together at the Buck position are really pushing each other and it's good competition. It's good to have that position with some experience in it."

Skill set observations: Decent size, tenacious, physical, plays downhill, moves well side-to-side, good leadership, good instincts and has a nose for the ball.

Up-and-coming

Toloa'i Ho-Ching: Freshman, 6-0, 225 pounds

During the first week of spring camp, one new middle linebacker that definitely passed the eye test was Toloa'i Ho-Ching. He has the build of a senior right now, and it looks as though he never left to serve a two-year mission.

"We have a guy who is making a case for pushing those guys at the second deep," said Tidwell. "A'i Ho-Ching is just home off his mission and pushing those guys. He just came home about three months ago, and he's doing really well. He has a great future ahead of him, and he's just a true freshman, so he'll have a redshirt to give. We've got a lot of great years and he has great future ahead of him and he's going to be a good one. He's very athletic and he's smart and picking things up quickly, so he'll be in the mix and hopefully getting some playing time with special teams. He could get in some games next year as a true freshman."

Skill set observations: Physically developed, quick, fast, vocal, great leadership, great feet, intense with a good nose for the ball. Has room to grow with position I.Q., is a quick learner with great instincts. Will be a very good player in the middle for years to come.

Teu Kautai: Sophomore, 6-1, 216 pounds

The other young linebacker coming up over on the horizon is Texas athlete Teu Kautai, who has been going back and forth from BLB to Sam linebacker (SLB) because he can cover in open space in the pass defense.

"Then [there's] Teu Kautai, number 25, who is playing outside just for needs right now because we're so thin right now at outside backer," said Tidwell. "He was an outside backer last year but we moved him inside. He's a buck linebacker, and so I feel like I have a good, solid three-deep right now. Then we've got two new guys coming in, and so we just need to keep them coming."

Biggest adjustments as a group

"From week one to week two the difference isn't going to be huge as far as individual development, but we do add stuff into our defense and that's where the difference is," said Coach Tidwell. "We put in some new things in, and as fast-paced as our offense is now, if they're thinking too much they can get caught back on their heels. It's hard to tell from one week to the next until we get everything installed. When we do that then we can see the overall progression."

Possibility of surpassing last year's group

"They certainly have the potential to match last year's inside performance from Brandon [Ogletree] and Uona [Kaveinga], and I hope they exceed it, and I think last year's guys would want them to. We hope to get better, but it's hard to say goodbye to guys that have started in the middle for two years. You hate to see those guys leave, but it's a compliment to Brandon and Uona to see how they led those guys behind them. They would want the guys that we have now in the program surpass what they did last year, and I think they're in position to do so as long as they continue to work hard, give great effort and learn the position like they did. If they do those things they'll have great success."


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