Jake Hatch takes a look at how BYU's defensive line performed in 2015 and looks ahead to 2016 and beyond in the defensive trenches

Jake Hatch continues his review and preview series of the position groups at BYU. In this edition, he examines how BYU's defensive line performed in 2015 and looks ahead to what should be a loaded defensive front for BYU in 2016 and on into the future. He also examines the recruiting future of BYU's defense front as Kalani Sitake has made it a recruiting priority to stock BYU's trenches.

Check out Jake's previous review & previews for BYU's Offensive Line & Specialists.

Defensive Line Review & Preview

BYU’s defensive line may have been one of the strongest units for the Cougars during the 2015 season when healthy. A mixture of season veterans and newcomers combined to lead a resurgent BYU defense that bounced back from a lackluster 2014 season. The unit loses a top NFL prospect in Bronson Kaufusi and a longtime contributor and NFL hopeful in Graham Rowley, along with converted tight end Remington Peck, but the rest of the corps should return to lead the BYU defense in 2016.

The biggest question mark revolving around the defensive line is the alignment that the new coaching staff will favor in 2016. The old staff under Bronco Mendenhall ran a 3-4 scheme while new head coach Kalani Sitake and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki have been trained in the 4-3 extensively. BYU's assistant head coach Ed Lamb told the media yesterday that the defense would run "multiple fronts" on defense. He also added "We are in 3-4, but running quite a lot of 4-3 out of that," (Thanks to Jay Drew from the Salt Lake Tribune for the quotes). Kalani Sitake’s track record as a defensive coordinator suggests that he is open to utilizing the best players at his disposal and adjusting his defensive scheme to fit their talents. The positive news is that Bronco Mendenhall’s staff left Sitake and his staff a plethora of talent on the defensive side of the football, particularly on the defensive line.

At nose tackle, BYU will return the stalwart Travis Tuiloma (6-2, 300-pounds) for his senior season. The hope is that Tuiloma will be healed up from an injury ravaged junior season and enjoy a injury-free senior campaign. A preseason Outland Trophy and Nagurski Award Watch-List honoree, Tuiloma only played in 9 games in 2015, starting 8. He finished with 25 total tackles (11 solo), 2.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 1 blocked kick en route to earning Phil Steele All-Independent Second Team Honors. He suffered a lower leg injury in the Las Vegas Bowl and his status for spring ball is up in the air but, when Tuiloma is healthy, he’s a dominant force in the middle of BYU’s defensive line. Getting Tuiloma some work in a four-man front would also be good for his potential professional prospects as he would be able to show his abilities as a three-technique in addition to his skills as a nose tackle head up on the center.

Kesni Tausinga (6-1, 302-pounds) served as Travis Tuiloma’s replacement last year and started when Tuiloma was unable to go due to injury. Tausinga saw action in 11 games last season and finished the year with 8 total tackles (5 solo), 2 tackles for loss, and a pass breakup. Tausinga struggled at the point of attack in 2015 and that will need to improve as he enters junior season if he hopes to garner extensive playing time. Tausinga may be better-suited for a four man front instead of the two-gapping technique required in a 3-4 alignment.

Tevita Mo'Unga came along nicely as a true freshman last year. The 6-3, 340-pound nose tackle showed agility that belied his size and above-average strength for a true freshman in a physically demanding position. Mo’Unga tallied 5 total tackles (2 solo) after seeing action in 7 games in 2015 and it’s expected that with a full offseason he’ll mount a challenge to supplant Tausinga as Travis Tuiloma’s back up.

BYU got some good news late last season as it was revealed that defensive end/nose tackle Logan Taele, who was thought to be out of eligibility, had another year to play at BYU. Taele, at 6-2, 293-pounds, is the perfect hybrid player in a 3-4 scheme, capable of playing both as a five-technique and head up on the center. Taele is expected to be back in 2016 and help hold down the fort alongside Tuiloma. Taele would also play well as three-technique in a 4-3 set. Taele is the consumate no-nonsense, glue guy that is critical to success with any position group.

Another player whose classification was initially reported wrong last season was Tomasi Laulile (6-4, 280-pounds). He originally was thought to be a junior but in reality was a sophomore in 2015. Laulile’s high upside when he was signed as part of the 2013 recruiting class began to be realized in 2016 as he flashed the ability to push the pocket in pass-rush situations while also demonstrating ability to set the edge and hold up in the run game. He finished last season with 26 total tackles (12 solo), 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, and a fumble recovery in 12 games of action. Keep an eye on Laulile to build on a successful 2015 campaign and have a bigger role in 2016.

Moses Kaumatule was a pass-rush revelation late in the season for BYU as redshirt freshman. The Bingham High School product returned in time from his mission to get into shape and see action in seven games for the Cougars. A slightly built defensive end at 6-2, 245-pounds, Kaumatule’s future may lie with the linebacking corps but he performed well in spot duty last season. He tallied only 2 tackles (1 solo) and half a tackle for loss on the season but any person who watched his play late in the season saw a quick first step that proved adept at giving Kaumatule an advantage in passing situations. As he refines his abilities, whether it’s as a defensive end or outside linebacker, Kaumatule looks like a guy who could be a playmaker for BYU in 2016 and beyond.

Felesi Tofi is a player who should garner some looks in spring ball. He spent the 2015 season on the scout team after returning from his mission in the Philippines but at 6-3, 280-pounds, He has the size to make an impact on the defensive line. The Samoan native prepped at Perris High School in the Inland Empire in California and should be a guy for BYU fans to track to see how he performs in spring and fall camp.

The pride of Lovell, Wyoming, Cody Savage is a walk-on who BYU fans need to get to know. Savage was All-Conference all 3 year of his high school career at Lovell High School and All-State as a junior and senior. He played wide receiver and tight end on offense as well as all along the defensive line for the Bulldogs. He also was Lovell’s punter and kicker, showing his versatility. The 6-6, 245-pounder may have been better on the hardwood as he was All-State in Wyoming for 3 years in addition to leading the Bulldogs to the 2013 state title. He spent the 2015 season on the scout team after a mission to Atlanta, Georgia and should be ready to make some noise this fall.

When BYU introduced their new coordinators in Jabuary, Former Timpview star Isaiah Nacua was walking through the football lobby and told the media present he was back in school at BYU. He didn't specify his status with the football program but once spring ball opens and the BYU football roster is updated, that question will be answered. Nacus was a highly-touted signing and could be another talented player to add to BYU's defensive line.

Three other players who were on the scout team in 2015 were Roman Andrus, Adam Ingersoll, and Maurice Maxwell. All 3 will look to use spring ball and the new Kalani Sitake-era of BYU football to hopefully gain a longer look from the new coaching staff.

Returned Missionaries & Newcomers

Merrill "Meti" Taliauli played a large role as a true freshman for BYU in 2013, seeing action in 8 games and totalling 4 tackles. The 6-2, 312-pound nose tackle showed an ability to play both in the middle and at end in a 3-4 scheme. After returning from a mission, Taliauli will find the depth chart more stacked than before his departure but he should stand decent odds of finding playing time for the Cougars. If he’s unable to crack the rotation, a redshirt in 2016 may be in play for Taliauli.

BYU listed Trajan Pili (6-2, 225-pounds) from Centennial High School (Las Vegas, NV) as a defensive lineman on their press release announcing his return from the mission field. Pili was originally signed as a linebacker but his being listed as lineman indicates the new BYU staff anticipates him bulking up to play in the trenches. Pili’s the older brother of 2016 BYU signee Keenan Pili. Pili is a highly regarded prospect who has been committed to BYU since 2011 so it’s been a long time coming for him to suit up as a BYU Cougar. Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, expect Pili to redshirt in 2016 to bulk up and get ready to play defensive end.

Pleasant Grove (UT) standout Zac Dawe was a guy who stood out on both sides of the ball for the Vikings and could suit up on either side of the ball for BYU. He was listed as a defensive lineman and will begin his career in the defensive trenches. The two-time All-American heavyweight wrestler in high school, Dawe is a tenacious football player and will be a great addition to the BYU defensive line rotation. He may redshirt in 2016 but Dawe will be a fan favorite in future days.

One of the most-hyped signings in the 2014 BYU recruiting class was Dominguez High School (Compton, CA) prospect Uriah Leiataua. Leiataua decommitted from Stanford and opted to sign with BYU. The 3-star defensive end (6-3, 245-pounds) might be best served by an anticipated shift to a 4-3 scheme at BYU but his natural abilities make it obvious that Leiataua should be a contributor during his career. BYU fans are eager to see him on the field finally and if he’s able to get in shape, he could see some time in 2016

Kalani Sitake added six defensive linemen as part of the 2016 recruiting class and some should make an impact in 2016 while others will depart for the mission field before enrolling.

Handsome Tanielu is the player widely expected to make an immediate impact for the Cougars in 2016. The four-star JUCO product from Snow College had offers from coast to coast and originally had committed to Utah before the two parties parted ways in early December. Tanielu enrolled in school in January and will participate in spring ball. The 6-2, 285-pound standout should challenge for a starting spot from the get-go and don't’ be surprised to see Tanielu making a major impact in 2016.

La Mirada High School (La Mirada, CA) prospect Keanu Saleapaga was a longtime USC commit but decided to open his recruitment up late in the process. He narrowed his choices to BYU and Colorado and cited the new culture and feeling of family surrounding BYU as a major reason why he signed with the Cougars. At 6-6, 265-pounds, Saleapaga has a FBS-ready body and should make an impact in fall camp. Saleapaga could also indicate a shift in BYU recruiting philosophy as he was a recruit that BYU likely would not have pursued or landed under Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure.

A late addition to the 2016 BYU signing class was Warren High School’s Kainoa Fuiava. The 6-5, 295-pound prospect came to the attention of BYU coaches late in the process. A cousin of Keanu Saleapaga and Notre Dame tight end transfer Tyler Luatua, Fuiava was set to sign with Hawaii until BYU came in with a late offer, which he pounced on immediately. An LDS athlete who does not plan on serving a mission, Fuiava will face long odds to make an immediate impact in 2016 for BYU on the defensive line but he’ll give his best effort in fall camp to move up the depth chart. He’ll likely redshirt, which would be a benefit for him to work on his abilities and adapt to the rigors of college football.

A.B. Miller High School product Feleti "Freddy" Livai is a prospect that BYU coaches were very high on. The 6-4, 256-pound prospect played defensive end, linebacker, and running back for the Rebels during his high school career, showing his versatility and athleticism. Livai has the frame to add weight and likely will play defensive tackle upon his return from an LDS mission. It’s expected that Livai will enroll at BYU in 2018.

Box Elder High School defensive end Darius McFarland (6-3, 250-pounds) will enroll at BYU after serving a mission in the Washington D.C. North Mission. McFarland was another versatile athlete on the gridiron for the Bees playing both running back and all along the defensive line during his high school career. McFarland was high school teammates with current BYU running back Riley Burt and he’ll seek to make an impact upon his return from the mission field.

A recruit that flew under the radar was West Jordan High School lineman Atunaisa Mahe. The 6-1, 293-pound nose tackle was a force in the middle of the Jaguars 3-4 defense and will seek to make a similar impact for the Cougars upon his return from the mission field. Mahe played rugby for West Jordan in addition to being a highly-regarded powerlifter, which should bode well for him in adapting to a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

In the Recruiting Pipeline

BYU has a keen interest in Bingham High School defensive tackle Jay Tufele as part of the 2017 recruiting class. #52 in the 2017 Scout 300 Rankings, Tufele has suitors nationwide and it would be a coup to land a prospect like Tufele.

A prospect the was offered under the Bronco Mendenhall regime was Marlon Tuipulotu from Central High School in Independence, OR. Tuipulotu remains interested in the Cougars but with mounting offers from multiple P5 programs, BYU will need to hop back into the race soon if they want to remain in contention.

Snow College defensive tackle John Penisini and Valor Christian High School’s Noah Elliss are other defensive tackle prospects who BYU has interest in (they’ve offered Penisini) but the odds of them ending up at BYU remains low as both have high interest in the University of Utah (Noah Elliss is the son of Utah and NFL lineman Luther Elliss).

Among prospects that play defensive end, BYU recently offered West Jordan prospect Alden Tofa. He’s close with his high school teammate and BYU signee Atunaisa Mahe, which could play into BYU’s favor as they pursue the 2017 prospect.

Another 2017 prospect BYU is keeping tabs on is Kahuku’s Aliki Vimahi. A part of a top-notch Red Raider defense that won a state title in 2015 and will look to repeat in 2016, Vimahi will have his time to shine in 2016 and will look to prove that he’s deserving of more looks in recruiting this summer as the camp circuit heats up.

BYU has also offered a trio of 2018 prospects that project as defensive linemen down the road. They include Kahuku’s Samson Reed, St. Bonaventure’s (CA) Kamakani Crosby, and Brighton High School’s Salua Masina. All three are prospects that BYU could be well-served to have offered either first or early on in the process. They all are part of the new emphasis of the BYU staff to get into LDS recruits homes early in the process and ensure that the Cougars remain in contention throughout the recruiting process.

BYU picked up a commitment in the 2019 class in Orem High School defensive end Tausili Fiatoa. Only in 8th grade, Fiatoa is a highly regarded prospect who jumped on the offer as soon as it was extended by BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. Fiatoa is currently 6-2, 195-pounds but expect him to grow up & mature over the next few seasons.


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