So many times when you have a "defensive-minded" head coach, the results on the field don't always match up with the coach's defensive reputation. But not so with Bronco Mendenhall, who has managed to turn one of college football's schools — known mostly for its innovative offense — into a defensive powerhouse.
Sound like a stretch? The Cougars were third nationally last year in both total defense and scoring defense. And the advanced stats were also pretty impressive. BYU ranked 13th in defensive S&P+, with a play efficiency that ranked sixth nationally and one that achieved top 15 ranks in all four phases of the defensive metric. BYU was fourth in rushing S&P+, and fifth in standard downs S&P+, while ranking 13th and 14th respectively in passing downs S&P+ and passing S&P+. Oh, and BYU was first in the country in third-down defense a year ago.
That's the result of a well-balanced defense that is exceptionally well-coached, one that doesn't give up many big plays and at the same time, one that has high-level personnel. Just last season, BYU put one player in the top part of the NFL Draft's first round in No. 5 pick defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, and in current rush-linebacker Kyle Van Noy, the Cougars have another player who is considered a first-round selection.
Just like on offense, it should be noted that BYU's defense was aided in Week One by a sloppy playing surface. But the Cougars allowed just 223 yards, and basically only a field goal on defense … despite losing 19-16, 16 of Virginia's points were set up by a blocked punt where the Cougars' punter lost control of a wet ball, an interception that slipped through the hands of the Cougars' running back and finally, a safety.
The result was that BYU lost a rare game in which it held its opponent to under 24 points. That would appear to be something of a milestone number for the Cougars — Mendenhall is 74-30 as BYU coach, but he's an amazing 66-9 when he holds opponents to fewer than 24 points.
The Cougars achieve those stats with a 3-4 defense that will boast one of the best linebacking groups the Longhorns will see this year.
Sophomore Left end Bronson Kaufusi (6-7 282) is coming off an outstanding true freshman year that saw him make 23 tackles, including 5.5 stops for loss and 4.5 sacks. That performance helped him find a spot on the Ted Hendricks Watch List. A former four-star prospect, Kaufusi is far from a stiff, as he's also found a spot on the BYU basketball team. The player who could give the Longhorns the most trouble is the active nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna (6-2 305), who made a whopping 10 tackles in the opener, including six solo stops. Remington Peck (6-4 250) rounds out the front. He made five tackles last week, with three solo tackles.
Van Noy (6-3 245) is the best player on the defense, and is one of the top defensive players in the entire country. Don't believe me? Look at the numbers. Over the past two seasons, Van Noy has more tackles for loss (37) than Jadeveon Clowney (35.5) and just one fewer sack (21-20). And that's not counting the fact that Van Noy also has five picks over the last two years. Virginia tried its best to scheme around him, rolling its quarterback away on boots and often running away from him, and so Van Noy had a "quiet" night with four tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Not only is Van Noy a pretty fluid athlete who can run, he does an exceptional job of using his hands and slipping past blockers. He's your prototypical rush linebacker in the 3-4, except that he also showcases the ability to play in space and impact other phases of the game. In short, he's really, really good.
BYU actually has another linebacker who jumps off the film as well. Senior middle linebacker and team captain Uani 'Unga (6-1 233) would also probably be an All-Big 12 candidate. 'Unga displays great range and a nose for the ball, making 10 tackles, including one tackle for loss against Virginia. Last Saturday was his first career start, and he might not make his second against Texas after suffering a chest injury against Virginia. If he can go, and he's healthy, that's a serious boon to the Cougars. Fellow senior Austen Jorgensen (6-2 239) is listed as 'Unga's backup, if he can't play. Spencer Hadley (6-1 227) is a Butkus Award candidate who can run. He actually set his career high in tackles against Texas back in the 2011 game, making 12 stops. SAM linebacker Alani Fua (6-5 228) set his career high in tackles last week with eight stops. This is an experienced group that can run and is disciplined.
BYU's cornerback group has been decimated by injuries, and with the rainy field last week, Texas should prove to be their first real test. Stud cornerback Jordan Johnson and big-time JUCO transfer Trenton Trammell both were lost for the season to ACL injuries before the year started, and the Cougars have had other injuries and attrition at the position as well. Daniel Robertson (6-1 198), who was a late signee after Trammell's injury, will start at the field cornerback spot. The boundary cornerback spot will be manned by either Mike Hague (5-10 190) or Skye PoVey (5-11 200). Free safety Craig Bills (6-1 205) had the team's lone interception a week ago, while KAT safety Daniel Sorensen (6-2 208) ranked second on last year's team in tackles and was first in interceptions a year ago. He's a three-year starter with 26 consecutive starts.
Scott Arellano (6-1 190) faced rough conditions to punt in a week ago, but he still averaged 40.9 yards per punt. He didn't see the field last year, so that's the only performance we've seen from him in a BYU jersey.