Middle linebackers a work in progress

BYU lost many topnotch linebackers from last year's team due to attrition, including one of the nation's top tacklers in Mike linebacker Uani Unga. In all, the middle linebacker position lost four very good and experienced players that made great contributions to the position over the past three years. It's now time to rebuild.

Last year, Uani Unga had a monster season. He was a Sports Illustrated All-American Honorable Mention and an FBS All-Independent First Team selection after tallying 143 total tackles as a senior. Inside linebacker coach Paul Tidwell now has the challenge of not only replacing Unga, but finding a two deep after having lost four linebackers from last year's roster.

"They're young, inexperienced, but fun," said Coach Tidwell. "It's a real challenge for me with a lot of new guys and new faces. We don't have as much depth in the spring, but we'll have good depth in the fall. We've got some good work cut out for us."

Although the depth has not been solidified, the two early frontrunners at Mike linebacker are currently Manoa Pikula and Zac Stout. Pikula is currently running with the first team, while Stout's running with the second team.

"I really like Manoa's leadership right now," said Coach Tidwell. "He views this as his turn to stop in and take over the meeting room and the inside linebackers. It's great to have Zac Stout back and those two have game experience, so I'm kind of counting on those two right now for spring ball.

"The one thing about Manoa is we moved him to Mike, so even though he played a lot and even started in some games, this is a new position for him at the Mike linebacker position. So, I've got some work to do with him. But, it's kind of fun. It's kind of fun to start over and work with him."

Altogether for spring camp, Coach Tidwell has six total players to play both Mike and Buck, but there are more on the way.

"There's a couple of young missionaries behind [Pikula and Stout]," Coach Tidwell said. "We have Adam Pulsipher and Austin Heder, who played a little fullback before his mission, and then we moved Jherremya [Leuta-Douyere] from outside backer to inside [Buck linebacker]. He does have some game experience but this is a new position for him. Then we have Jared Richardson, so we have six guys right now. Hopefully they'll stay healthy and continue to learn and prepare for fall season. We're looking forward to new things."

The guys that are on the way to help fill more positions won't be practicing until the fall.

"We've got some guys coming in, like [Toloa'i] Ho Ching, who was here last year," said Coach Tidwell. "He had a knee injury mid-season so he's not going through spring right now. Teu Kautai had a shoulder operation after the season and he has some experience, so we'll have those two guys back. Matt Relei is a walk-on and just gives you everything he has and is a hard worker, but he had shoulder surgery.

"If you take those three guys and put them into spring ball, you have nine linebackers instead of six. Then we're going to add two return missionaries in the fall: Va'a Niumatalolo and Phil Amone, so having those guys coming home off missions along with those guys coming back from injuries, we'll have really good depth. I'm really excited. Yeah, I'm really excited."

Coach Tidwell sees the potential of many of his young charges and believes if they work hard, that potential could yield some very special results. That's saying a lot given the recent history of BYU's middle linebackers, but he's excited about what the future holds for his group of inside linebackers.

"I am really excited, yeah, I am," Tidwell said. "You know, Manoa – if he works hard and continues to work hard and continues to learn and progress athletically – could be special. We're excited about him.

"Zac Stout is just a hitter and we love the way he plays. He's come a long ways and Zac is doing well. He's a good student and he's very smart, football smart. You don't have to tell him twice on how to do things. He hears something and picks it up fast. When he's healthy he can help us, especially against the run. Man, he's a physical plugger and he'll really hit you. Right now he's playing Mike with Manoa."

Coach Mendenhall commented on Monday about Stout's return to the program after being suspended from the team and leaving BYU in 2012.

"It seems like a long time," said Mendenhall. "[Stout's] coming back as a walk-on without a scholarship to re-earn it. He's not only qualified credits-wise, he's been talking classes, but also ecclesiastically and standards-wise he met everything the Dean of Students asked him to do, so it's fun that he's done all that and battled back. Hopefully he'll re-earn it through the fall and it will become a complete happy ending."

As spring ball gets underway, the middle linebackers are young but the talent is there. Every group of linebackers has its own characteristics and personality. While last year's group was experienced and talented, Coach Tidwell feels this group is young but also talented, in addition to having a little chip on their shoulders.

"They're really hungry to prove themselves," said Coach Tidwell. "They're hungry to compete and they're hungry to step in and say, ‘Okay, now it's my turn.' We've had some great experience over the last three or four years with Uona [Kaveinga], Brandon [Ogletree], Uani [Unga], Spencer [Hadley] and Tyler Beck, and Austen Jorgensen, and those guys that have been around for a while. So, it made my job easy because they were smart and understood the defense. We've now got some guys that are hungry to prove themselves, and like those guys that played before them, are also very talented. I've got my work cut out for me but it's going to be fun working with this new group of inside linebackers. I'm excited."

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