Defensive Line Making Progress

Things have changed for the better across the defensive line during the past three weeks. Defensive tackle Hala Paongo and defensive end Kyle Luekenga discuss how their unit has matured physically and mentally since the start of spring practice.

The first week of spring practice was brutal for the young guns manning the trenches on the defensive side of the ball. Senior Hala Paongo, sophomores Kyle Luekenga and Jan Jorgensen and freshman Brett Denney had a rough go against an extremely experienced offensive line. The offense ran and passed at will against a defense learning a new scheme with younger, less experienced players.

Now, in the middle of the third week of spring practice, there has been a noticeable change. The offense has not been able to assert itself as much as was the case during the previous weeks. Granted, many of the first team offensive line starters are either not playing or nursing minor injuries, but there are still quite a few with experience such as Eddie Keele and Jake Kuresa.

"From the first week we've come a long ways," said defensive tackle Kyle Luekenga. "I think the first two weeks it was the learning process and now that we're heading into our third week we're starting to not think as much but, just play the game.

"We're thinking less because we know more now, and the instincts are coming out and you can start to see that on the field. We're making plays now rather than reacting to a situation because we're thinking too much trying to figure out what we should do. Now the instincts are coming out and we're making those plays naturally."

The defensive linemen are more comfortable in their assignments and are learning from the hard lessons of early on. Although there is still work to do, the fact that they are making plays more naturally instead of worrying about their assignments shows their progress.

"I just tell them one thing and that's to go out there and have fun and everything will fall into place," said Paongo. "Instead of thinking too much just go out there and play hard. We've got the basics down and now let's go out there and make a play. Later on when we get into fall camp, then we'll get into all the details. We may make some mistakes but we're playing hard and we're having fun."

Luekenga echoed Paongo's take.

"That's the main thing, if you have fun it brings you out of your shell and you're not so uptight," said Luekenga. "It's all about playing football and making plays, and when you're having fun you're not so reserved and worried about things. We're learning a lot and bringing in new packages every day to the defense against the run and it's going to be good."

The most notable difference across the defensive front is that they are now giving the offensive line a run for their money. Two weeks ago, the O-line had their way with their undersized, inexperienced defensive counterparts. In the last three practices, however, the defensive line won as many battles as they lost. To some concerned BYU fans, this progress is very encouraging.

"The defensive line is young," said Paongo. "Last year we had all big guys and everyone was seniors and really physical. The line is young this year and right now we're learning to match the physical play of the O-line. We're working to become more physical up front right now.

"We're doing alright and the defense is getting there. I think we're improving every day and it's moving forward. Right now the D-line is just trying to improve and become masters of our positions and move forward by building on the basics."

While this year's defensive line is smaller than last year's trio of 300-pound plus starters in Vince Feula, Manaia Brown and Daniel Marquardt, Paongo and Leukenga feel that the 2006 edition of the D-line has better overall speed.

"We're smaller but we're also quicker," said Paongo. "Because we are quicker, we can get out there to the ball faster. If we can match our quickness with better physical play then I think we can pretty good."

Kyle Luekenga agrees with Paongo's assessment.

"We're a little smaller than last year's D-line but I think we bring more quickness to the D-line this year," said Luekenga. "Also, because we're not as big, we also bring more endurance where we're able to just keep coming and coming because we don't tire out so fast."

As the only returning starter up front, Paongo has taken a leadership role with his younger teammates both on the field and in the weight room. The burden of establishing a more formidable D-line presence in the wake of all the graduating experience and talent from last year has helped to inspire Paongo to be better.

"I'm getting there," said Paongo. "I think how I've improved this year comes from knowing it's my last year. I'm more dedicated in playing an older role and being a better example to some of the other guys to show them how it's done. I'm trying to establish a tempo and keep it at a high level so everyone can follow within a leadership role.

Not only has Paongo committed himself more in the leadership role department, but he has also committed himself during the off-season to be stronger. Paongo joined the team's elite lifting club.

"Right now I'm at 285 pounds,"said Paongo. "We're getting stronger everyday and just trying to get the new plays down everyday and we're improving. I'm stronger in my lower body this year. We've been doing a lot of squatting and cleans. My cleans have gone up and also my squats have gone up this year. I squat between 550 and 600 and I clean 328-pounds. I'm in the elite group where you have to squat over 500, clean over 300 and bench over 400-pounds. I bench 440-pounds right now."

Last Tuesday, Paongo made a great play by bursting through on the left side against the first team offensive line to tackle on speedy tailback Ray Hudson for a three-yard loss. Kyle Luekenga was also able to get past the first team offensive line for a sack, and Jan Jorgensen applied constant pressure from the outside as well. Linebacker Cameron Jensen was involved in a sack right up the middle and outside linebackers Bryan Kehl and Chris Bolden were also involved in applying quarterback pressure, stopping the run. They each recorded a sack.

"The defensive line responsibilities have changed," said Paongo. "Last year the defensive linemen were assigned to one gap and that's what we covered, but now we're playing two gaps instead of one which means there is more of a responsibility placed on us. That allows the linebackers to be more open and not be tied up with linemen up front.

"We trust each other. I have some game experience and they have some game experience so I've got their back and they've got my back. We're all in the same lifting group so I know what strengths and weaknesses they have and they know mine too, so we kind of try and cover each other on those weaknesses on the field."

"It's going to get even better next week too," said Luekenga. "Spring ball is almost like a whole year of learning and we've come a long ways since the first week."

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