Walk-on Leads 11th Ranked Defense

From whipping post to starter, walk-on athletes can be the focus of a lot of ire from both fans and coaches. For Hala Paongo, BYU's only senior defensive lineman, that has definitely been the case. The converted rugby player has had to work hard for every minute of playing time on his way to becoming the leader of the Cougar defensive line.

Last year, Hala Paongo received his share of criticism from fans of a team that eventually went 6-6 on the year. As a walk-on who was thrust into a starting spot when most of a senior laden offensive line went down with injuries, Paongo had to learn through adversity.

"Coming as a walk-on is really hard," said Paongo. "The first thing you have to do is everything that is asked and then extra. That's what it takes if you want to play as a walk-on. You have to do more than what's expected.

"You have to stay after practice; you have to do extra drills, running more, do extra conditioning, watching more film outside the usual film meetings. It takes a lot more effort and work because you're trying to earn a spot on the team as a walk-on. You always know that your spot isn't secure as a walk-on, and that you can be relieved at any time."

Setting out to improve his personal performance, Paongo also made a conscientious effort to be a team leader. The pressure and importance of rising up from obscure walk-on to team leader on a defensive line soon to be manned by incoming freshman was something Paongo realized fell upon his shoulders.

"I think because I'm a leader and I have to be an example unto the younger guys," Paongo said. "I'm the only senior and so there is a lot of pressure on me."

Since college coaches cannot suit up and show how the game is played, much of how technique and one field performance is conveyed comes through the emulation of fellow defensive linemen. Little do BYU fans understand that the example and habits that these young redshirt and true freshman are now forming will be directly influenced by a walk-on defensive lineman from Hawaii's Kahuku High School.

"The coaches expect me to show these young guys how it's done," said Paongo. "I'm really focused on showing them how things are done right so that the example is set for them to continue the tradition."

"I knew from the start when I came into this program that we would be losing a lot of D-linemen," said true freshman defensive end Matangi Tonga. "I knew that Coach Mendenhall needed young defensive linemen to come in and step it up because this team was short on D-linemen. There is only one senior and that's Hala. The rest of us are all new guys because we didn't play last year, and so during the off-season there was a lot of hard work especially in fall camp. Under the direction of Coach Mendenhall, this program is going the right way."

"The things that they've done a great job at are limiting teams in their drives," said Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist John Beck. "Most of the time we're getting great field position because the defense is stepping up. Also, the defense has done a great job in creating turnovers, and most of those turnovers have come where we all of a sudden have a short field to go. One of the key things we say on offense is, ‘Hey, make a play when a play needs to be made.' When it's third down we need to make a play, and I think equal to that is what the defense has done this year. When it's third down and they need a big stop, they've done it. When they need a turnover, they've created it."

Last Saturday, BYU's defense held Colorado State to just 29 yards rushing and 151 yards of total offense. The Cougar defense has allowed just 13.1 point per game and only 9.6 points per game against league opponents. With a team-leading four sacks, Paongo has helped anchor a Cougar defense currently ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense.

"Yeah it's an honor but I have to give the credit to our secondary," said Paongo with a smile. "All of our sacks have come because of the secondary. The more they cover out there the more of a chance we have to get to the quarterback, so I give credit to our secondary because they do all the hard work and we get lucky once in awhile getting to the quarterback."

Still in leadership mode, Paongo is quick point out that his individual success has come from the performances of his fellow teammates.

"We blitz the linebackers or we bring four or five which gives us defensive linemen more of a chance," said Paongo with a smile. "But really our secondary has helped us out a lot this year. They've been more impressive this year than last year in locking down the secondary, so when that happens it allows us to have more time to get into the backfield and to the quarterback. That's how I got those four sacks."

"I think they're very deserving of that [ranking]," said Beck. "As we head into these next couple of games, everybody is talking about how big these games are for our team. I think our defense is going to play even better in these games."

Along with Paongo, Tonga and junior Judd Anderton also recorded sacks against Colorado State. It was the first sack of Tonga's college career.

"It was a stunt with two D-linemen," recalled Tonga. "I kind of jabbed up field and Romney [Fuga] came across and then I came around Romney. I saw Judd pressuring the quarterback, and he rolled out, and I happened to be there, and I got him."

Following the play, Tonga was not quite sure how to celebrate his first college sack.

"It was good but I didn't know how to celebrate it," chuckled Tonga. "I didn't celebrate because I didn't know how, but hopefully there will be more to come. Hopefully I can learn from the older guys on how to celebrate without getting any penalties. Hala knows all the tricks and all the techniques, so I'll have to go talk to Hala after this."

For the first time since the 2002 season, BYU is ranked in the top 25.

"It always feels good to be on the map," said Tonga. "There are some who really haven't heard much about BYU, and now that we are ranked within the top 25 that will help. Coach Mendenhall told us something that was very important to us today. He basically told us not to get big headed and being in the top 25 is a bonus, so we just have to put that aside right now and just focus on Wyoming because we're going to have a big test coming up this Thursday. We can fall out of the top 25 just as easily as we got in it. If we lose focus for just one game and lose then we're knocked out, and it never really mattered because all of our hard work from before to win the conference went to waste."

Coach Mendenhall agrees with sentiments of his young defensive linemen.

"We appreciate the recognition of being considered a top-25 football program," BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said on BYUCougars.com. "When you look back at the great tradition of BYU football, being ranked on a weekly basis is very much a part of that tradition. As we continue to improve and make progress, we expect this type of recognition for our program to continue. I'm very pleased with the direction this program is heading; however, we have a very important game this week. Our focus this week, as it is each week, will be on playing our next opponent."

"It is an accomplishment by our defense and a great acknowledgment to be listed within the top 25, but that's not our focus," said Paongo. "Right now our focus is Wyoming, so we're going to take one game at a time and see where it takes us at the end of the season."

"It's a great honor for us," said Beck. "I know of a lot of people text message me in the past day because of that. We have a lot of people that are excited for us as a team but we just want to keep moving up."

Having a strong defense to compliment the prowess of the offense is a formula that helped BYU teams of old succeed. The risk of losing close games becomes diminished and much of the pressure of game day expectations is more evenly distributed among the team rather than resting on the shoulders of a few playmakers.

"The other night, we don't normally turn the ball over where I threw that pick in the end zone," said Beck. "An offense that normally doesn't have that kind of confidence in their defense might get a bit discouraged or frustrated, but we just felt that our defense would go out there and do a great job and make a play. One of the best defenses this school has had was, I think, the 83 defense when Steve Young was here. I think they were one of the tops, I'm not 100 percent sure, but whenever you have a top defense with a potent offense like we have, it's obviously a great combination for success."

So even though he is an offensive guy, is it safe to say that Beck is one of the BYU's defenses biggest fans?

"Oh yeah," said Beck. "I would have to say each offensive personnel are in line for that. I think we're all very confident in our defense and very supportive of what they're doing."

"Coach Mendenhall knows what he is doing and we all trust in Coach Mendenhall and his theory," said Tonga. "He basically told us that if we want to win, follow him. I think we as a team are doing a good job in following him as you can see during our practices because it's always quick and tense. Coach Mendenhall does a good job in mixing the coverages, blitzes and three man rushes so he knows what he's doing. We all know that he understands what he is doing so we just need to follow him and play to the best of our ability."

This Thursday BYU hosts a Wyoming team that is second in the Mountain West Conference stnadings. Beck (9,487) needs just 50 passing yards to pass his life long BYU quarterback idol Jim McMahon for second place on BYU's career passing list, and just 224 yards to pass McMahon for second place on BYU's career total offense list.

"Yeah, that will be great," chuckled Beck. "Hopefully we'll throw for more than just 50 yards."

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