There is a lot of upper class experience at the linebacker position for the BYU Cougars entering 2017. The youngest is sophomore Johnny "Ku-J" Tapusoa, who is battling for second string reps behind Butch Pau'u at middle linebacker. Francis Bernard and Fred Warner return alongside Pau’u to give the Cougars a formidable starting trio of linebackers.
"Right now it's me and Fred Warner at the outside linebacker position and then in the middle it's Butch Pau'u," said Bernard. "Right behind Butch is Adam Pulsipher and Ku-J Tapusoa who are neck and neck right now. Then behind Fred is Morgan [Unga] and then right behind me is Isaiah [Kaufusi]. That's what the two deep looks like right now."
In the defensive trenches the Cougars have some big bodies that are showing improvement.. However, the focus during spring camp for the big boys playing in front of Bernard is getting more pressure on the pocket.
"They're good especially in the run," said Bernard. "It's good playing behind Tevita Mounga and Merrill Taliauli and some of those other big boys up front are really good in the run. They still have a lot to work on in the pass-rush game and that's what we're working on in the spring is the pass rush."
Bernard expressed that the players on defensive side of the ball are well-versed with BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s scheme and the task now is adding new tweaks to the system.
"I'm pretty comfortable and the first week we looked really good," said Bernard. "We're now installing new stuff and that even looked really good and was ran crisp. With us having that year under our belt it's going to be really easy for us in the spring to add more stuff. I'm really excited about the development that's going on over spring ball."
"Right now we did switch some things up in our base package, but we are installing our base, which has some tweaks to it. So, yeah, we did install a new base package with some modifications for our linebackers and we easily have it down now. Starting Wednesday we might install some new stuff. So, right now we're all just looking forward to all the new stuff. It's been going really good for us and it's exciting."
As far as the secondary goes, Bernard is seeing more production and that is allowing the front seven to be more productive in placing pressure on the quarterback.
"Absolutely, yes," said Bernard. "Going back and watching the very first day they look five times better than they were at the end of the season. They look like night and day difference now than at the end of the season, so I'm excited to see their improvement from now till fall because they have so much potential to improve on. It's going to be great for us."
"With the improvements in coverage in our backfield it will give us more of a variety of things to do up front. We'll have more flexibility in our base package and be able to put more pressure up front. For the linemen there is a clear understanding now of what to do and we have good chemistry with them, so we know what they're going to do and will be able to take more chances."
As far as defending BYU’s offense, the emergence of the tight end has placed new coverage responsibilities on the outside linebackers but mostly at the “Sam” linebacker position, which doesn't affect Bernard much, who is playing the “Bo” linebacker spot. However, he's seeing more action from the tight ends as spring progresses.
"We're seeing more tight ends that can block and run routes downfield now," Bernard said. "We moved Moroni [Laulu-Pututau] and he's been doing some good things over spring camp as a receiver, so we're seeing a lot more of him in all aspects of the game. He's trying to bulk up and put some weight on him. We're also seeing more of Matt Bushman who is a new tight end, and he's just getting going but he's going to be some someone that's going to be another threat at the tight end position once he gets things down."
Facing a top-caliber quarterback like Tanner Mangum, who has a very good grasp of BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer's offense, has really pushed the defense. Bernard feels in the long run it will pay dividends when the Cougars face other programs with quality quarterbacks during the season.
"It's tough going up against him because he's really good," said Bernard. "He gives us a lot of competition because he knows the offense and can make all the throws. He makes sure we're on our A-game, which is good for us because we're going to see a lot of good quarterback's this season. He forces us to be really competitive and play our best because if we don't he'll catch us. It's been good facing him because we know we'll face other really good quarterbacks like him during the season, so it's been really good because he pushes us to be our best."