Defensive line young but full of potential

Last season, mostly because of injuries across the defensive line, Coach Kaufusi had just seven defensive linemen to work with in the two-deep. Senior defensive tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna went down after the Boise State game, and Ian Dulan's career was cut short before the season started. This season there is a lot of potential waiting in the wings.

Coach Kaufusi did a fantastic job of patching up the defensive line last season in what could have been a disaster, and of course having Ezekiel Ansah blow up didn't hurt either.

"The d-line was stacked last year but then we have quite a few injuries, and so some of the younger guys got a chance to step up," Eathyn Manumaleuna said. "This year it's looking pretty good because we have more players to work with that have been in the program. There will be a lot of competition and that's a good thing.

"There's a lot of new guys coming up and that's interesting to see in spring. Guys like Marques [Johnson], T.K. [Theodore King] and Remington [Peck], who've learned a lot and been around last year, are getting a good opportunity to play in spring. They've really stepped up and are no longer the guys in the back anymore. In meetings they're speaking up and taking on more of a leadership role."

As of right now Coach Kaufusi has eight players – not counting walk-ons Logan Taele, David Laird, Justin Blackmore and Josh Marquardt – to work with, and all have varying degrees of experience. One is returning senior Eathyn Manumaleuna, who is counting on being granted an extra year by the NCAA after his injury last season, and that is a big bonus for the defensive line this year. "Mostly what I've been doing is individual drills and things like that," said Manumaleuna. "I'm not really involved with team stuff and one-on-one drills, and coming into spring I knew that I wouldn't be involved with any of those things."

Much like Kyle Van Noy, Manumaleuna doesn't have to prove himself or show the coaches what he's capable of, so spring for players like him is often reserved for staying polished in a time of recovery.

"I'm coming along," he said. "The trainers are working with me really well and pushing me along every day with my rehab. I'm not just staying in one stage, but improving only a daily basis."

Right now there are two players competing at the nose guard position. One is recently returned missionary Tuni Kanuch (6-1, 285 pounds), a freshman, and the other is junior Marques Johnson (6-2, 321 pounds).

"Things are going good this spring and it's been a lot of fun," said Johnson. "I've been healthy this year and so I've had a chance to practice and show the coaches what I can do. Right now it's mostly been me and Tuni competing in the middle at nose guard. It's been really good and a big battle over spring."

The nose guard position could very well get a little more competitive in fall camp when Manumaleuna should be practicing fully. He has experience playing every position across the defensive line, including nose guard.

"Yeah, there is a possibly that they will move me back to nose guard just to see who will step up," Manumaleuna said. "We'll see who will step up in fall camp, but we'll just have to see. I think they'll want to see who can really push that position."

That makes sense given the importance of the nose guard position. If either Kanuch or Johnson can hold down the nose guard position adequately, Manumaleuna will more than likely play left defensive tackle with Bronson Kaufusi playing right defensive tackle.

Meanwhile, tight end Austin Holt was moved over to the defensive side of the ball this season. At 6 feet 5 inches and 250 pounds, he was one of the best blocking tight ends and one of the more physical ones in the program, so the move to the defensive line where he'll be taking on offensive linemen seems a good fit.

"He's willing to learn a lot and he's doing well," said Manumaleuna about Holt. "I've seen a huge improvement from him since the first day to now. He wants to get better and he's coming along. I think he has to get out of his offensive mindset first. He cocks back his hands and stuff like that, but other than that it's just little things that have to be fixed."

Over spring camp, Remington Peck (6-4, 240 pounds) has been practicing on the left side as more of a rush defensive end.

"Remington has done a really good job of taking in a lot of the younger guys, and walk-on guys too, and just showing them the ropes and helping them out," said Manumaleuna. "He's doing a good job in helping a lot of the younger guys know what's expected."

Freshman Tuni Kanuch is a natural fit for nose guard, and that position will be in good hands for years to come once he gets it down. Kanuch is naturally strong, stout and very eager to develop. It's just a matter of time before his physical abilities catch up with the skills required to play the nose guard position.

"Tuni is doing really well and you can tell he's hungry," said Manumaleuna. "He's asking a lot of questions and is getting better and better every day. He has a long ways to go because he hasn't played football in a long time. He's learning the defensive mentality and is getting there."

"Yeah, Tuni is going to be really good," said middle linebacker Manoa Pikula. "He's just so strong but he doesn't have the experience that Marques [Johnson] has. Marques has a lot more experience and knows the position better, but Tuni has more upside to his game but just not as much development."

At the right defensive tackle position, Theodore King (6-3, 252 pounds) has been receiving a lot of time during spring camp. Bronson Kaufusi has also been performing on the right side, although he has missed some of spring camp because he is still playing with the basketball team. In a limited role, Kaufusi recorded 23 total tackles, including 4.5 sacks, last season.

"I think a lot of these guys have been waiting in the wings to step up and fill these roles," Manumaleuna said. "We have guys with a lot of talent that have some experience last year and now is their time."

"Having Bronson back is huge for us," said Manoa Pikula. "He's just so big and fast off the line that it really puts a lot of pressure on the o-line and keeps those guys off of us in the middle. Having him back really helps our defense and once we get Kyle [Van Noy] back it's only going to get better on that right side of the defense. It's actually pretty exciting to see the potential we have when we get all these guys back and gelling together."

Making the switch

Austin Holt talks about making the switch from offense to defense and some of the challenges he's facing.


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