The middle is in good hands

Attrition can leave a football program rebuilding. However, that not might be the case with the graduation of inside linebackers Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga, despite how good they were. Coach Mendenhall has two very capable replacements in Tyler Beck and Uani Unga who could be one of the more pleasant surprises on this year's defense.

Cougar fans everywhere like to place guesses on who will be the surprise player on both sides of the ball. Many have picked the safe and expected name of Ross Apo to be such a player on offense. On defense, Tyler Beck would be a good pick simply because he was the surprise of spring camp, beating out Manoa Pikula.

However, there could be two newcomers to the starting defense that would be good picks. One is nose guard Marques Johnson. The other good pick for defensive impact player is middle linebacker Uani Unga.

"I feel great and I'm excited about this season," Unga said. "I sat out the first day of practice because I had a wisdom tooth pulled, and it put me out for about a week and I couldn't do any conditioning or workout. It set me back earlier than I wanted to be, but now I'm just getting it back with more conditioning, especially with the way Coach Mendenhall runs his practices. It's kicking in and I'm getting my conditioning back up to where it needs to be."

During spring camp Coach Tidwell let his guard down and raved about Unga, saying, "I wish I had another year with him." Then he caught himself, eased down his smile of excitement, and followed up with, "But he still has a lot to learn." It was too late. The cat was already out of the bag.

"I feel like I have a lot to learn, like Coach Tidwell said," said Unga, whose disposition tends to be one of humility. "I do feel good and I feel like I know a majority of the defense. The more I learn, the faster I can react. I still have a lot to learn, but the faster I learn the faster I can react to what the offense is trying to do. There's always room for me to improve."

Last season Ogletree had 102 total tackles, 50 of which were solo tackles. From his Mike linebacker position, Ogletree had 53 more total tackles than Kaveinga in 2012. The Mike linebacker is the field general on defense, and whoever plays there has to uphold that standard.

So what does Unga think is is it about him that causes Coach Tidwell to beam ever so slightly when talking about his senior linebacker?

"Well, I mean, I play the same way I've always been taught," said Unga who, once again, struggled to talk about himself. "I don't know. Maybe it's my speed or maybe it's my athleticism, but whatever it is, I just try to do my best to do what the coaches tell me. In doing that, I feel like I've made some plays that maybe [make] Coach Tidwell wishes he had more time to work with me to see more of those plays that I have made."

Case in point – last Monday when Unga returned to the field for the first time of fall camp. Taysom Hill carried the ball on a designed run play to the outside. Unga quickly read the play and met Hill just as he reached the outside tackle position, no small feat given the speed of Hill.

"Overall, I feel like maybe Coach Tidwell might appreciate my speed and athleticism, and maybe how I'm able to react to what the offenses are doing," said Unga. "I don't know, maybe he appreciates my ability to react to offensive plays and be able to cover and be tough in the run."

Unga's personal goals reflect the overall core principles often stated by Coach Mendenhall.

"For me, I feel like, especially as an inside linebacker, stopping the run is important for us," Unga said. "Stopping the run is one of the biggest things for us. Our nose guard has got to bring his A-game every game. If teams can't run on us, then we'll be able to control the pace of the game. Those are some of the responsibilities that we've been given as inside linebackers and we're working hard, from the ones all the way down to the twos to make sure we'll be a dominant factor within the defense."

Unga's and Beck's talent might lead to an upgrade in performance. It's a proposition that bodes well, given the upgrade in teams on the schedule.

"I feel like we do have great talent that runs through the first-team, second-team and third-team units," said Unga. "I mean, we're all athletic and I can't think of one single person that isn't fit enough to play in the first team spot. There's lots to learn in the three-deep, but with the mindset they have and all the film study we put in together, I'm confident if the ones and twos go down, the threes could step in and be good enough to step in, even with these first four days of fall camp. I think one of the reasons why Coach Mendenhall has made the types of comments about the linebackers [being the best he's coached] is because he sees the athleticism and effort level in all three groups from the ones to the threes."

Middle linebacker depth

Unga is right; the middle of the field is solid and loaded with talent. BYU fans will know exactly how loaded it is come the season-opener against Virginia.

"At the Mike there's me, Austen Jorgensen, then Toloa'i Ho Ching. At the Buck is Tyler Beck, and Manoa Pikula is behind him. Then Teu Kautai, who has been showing up the past few days making plays, is really coming up. If he keeps learning and growing, he'll be a really good player. We've got a good group of guys in the middle that I think are going to help the defense for a long time."

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