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2014 Outlook: The BYU Linebackers

28 January 2014 Brett Richins
BYU will rely on the talents of LB Manoa Pikula in 2014 (BYU photo)

BYU will rely on the talents of linebacker Manoa Pikula in 2014 (BYU photo)

BYU loses a great deal of talent at linebacker for the 2014 season.

Kyle Van Noy moves on to the NFL, leaving the Cougars with the task of replacing perhaps the greatest defensive player in school history.

Also gone from last year’s corp of linebackers is Uani Unga, Spencer Hadley, Austen Jorgensen and Tyler Beck.

It’s a good bet that Unga, who set a school record with 143 tackles and had 7.5 tackles for loss, will join Van Noy in finding a home in the NFL next year.

He has too much speed and produced at too high of a level during his senior season to not get a solid look at the next level.

Hadley’s suspension and injury hurt the interior of the BYU defense last season. He played in just six games, and the defense was not the same without him on the field. Jorgensen and Beck both made significant contributions to the defense, combining to make 88 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.

For 2014, BYU returns several linebackers with playing experience, including Alani Fua (6-5, 228 Sr.), Manoa Pikula (6-1, 235 Jr.), Jherremya Leuta-Douyere (6-0, 236 Jr.) and Teu Kautai (6-1, 220 Jr.). All four players were members of the two-deep in 2013.

Fua started much of the season at outside linebacker on the strong side, opposite Van Noy, and turned in a terrific performance. He recorded 63 tackles, three sacks, five tackles for loss, 10 pass break ups and had two interceptions, one of which he took back 51 yards for a touchdown against Georgia Tech. Kyle got all the attention from opposing offenses last year, allowing Alani to be a disruptive force.

He is now thrust into the role of being a leader and he will be relied upon to take his game up a notch in an effort to help replace some of what Van Noy brought to the table. His athleticism and length make him an unusual prospect at linebacker, and after struggling to put on weight early in his playing career, he’s now pushing 230 pounds. He could stay on the strong side or be moved to the weak side spot vacated by Van Noy.

Pikula played in all 13 games in 2013 at inside linebacker. He finished the year as the back up at the buck position behind Tyler Beck. He made a total of 31 tackles, five of which were behind the line of scrimmage. He had a career-best five tackles at Notre Dame, and recorded three tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack against Boise State.

The Cougars need Manoa to step up and earn a starting role on the inside next season. He has all the ability in the world, but has yet to really live up to his billing as the highly-anticipated talent that he was when he came out of Bingham High School in 2011. He’ll enter spring camp as the favorite to win the starting job at the buck.

Kautai ended last season listed as the back up to Unga at the mike linebacker spot. BYU fans may remember that he played quarterback at Oakridge School in Arlington, Texas where he threw passes to Ross Apo. He’s an athletic player, although he may not posses quite as much speed as Uani. He’ll have a battle on his hands in order to win a starting job next year.

Leuta-Douyere looks like the odds-on-favorite to win the starting job at outside linebacker opposite Fua. He was the the back up to Van Noy at the Will position last year, so he didn’t see a ton of playing time on defense. Still, he did see action in 12 games and recorded 16 tackles, two for loss, and forced a fumble at Wisconsin. He also played in 10 games as a true freshmen, something that is usually a sign that Bronco Mendenhall really likes a player.

The Cougars also have some interesting up-and-coming talent on the roster that BYU fans will likely get a chance to see more of next season, including Toloa’i Ho Ching (6-1, 230 Fr.), Sae Tautu (6-3, 245 So.), Kevan Bills (6-3, 245 Jr.) and Joey Owens (6-3, 220 So.).

Ho Ching appears to have a bright future in Provo and his play in practice attracted compliments from coaches before the decision was made to redshirt him in 2013. It’s a good bet that the former Alta High star works himself into the two-deep this year.

Meanwhile, expect Sae Tautu to get more playing time after appearing in eight games last year. There was talk about playing him at defensive end prior to last season after he put on some weight on his mission, but it appears now that his future will be at linebacker.

Bills sat out last year, while still recovering from the torn ACL that he suffered before the start of the 2012 season. The question surrounding Kevan is if he will ever get on the field after missing two consecutive seasons. He certainly has talent and was pushing for playing time before injury issues kept him from participating.

Owens played in one game last year after returning home from his mission to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He’s been projected as a strong side linebacker in Mendenhall’s defense. Joey dealt with a lot of shoulder injury issues in high school, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on his health as he attempts to earn a place on the depth chart this year.

Walk-ons Tanner Cox (6-4, 226 Sr.), Jordan Egbert (6-3, 225 So.), and Matthew Relei (6-1, 227 So.) provide additional depth.

A wildcard at linebacker could be Michael Alisa (6-1, 220 Sr.), who may come over from the offensive side of the ball and could make an immediate push to start. Alisa played linebacker as a true freshman prior to his mission and looked to have a bright future there. Injuries the past two seasons have limited his ability to contribute as a running back, and with the logjam in the backfield, his talents may be better used on defense during his final season.

Another player that could end up back on defense for his senior year when all is said and done is Iona Pritchard (6-0, 232 Sr.). He’s found it difficult to get on the field as a running back, but he could make a significant contribution at linebacker. Like Alisa, Iona played linebacker as a true freshman and recorded 14 tackles and a forced fumble.

The Cougars also welcome the talents of potential contributors at linebacker in the form of Austin Heder (6-1, 241 So.) , Phillip Amone (6-0, 220 Fr.) and Troy Hinds (6-5, 225 Fr.) from the mission field.

Heder played in five games as a fullback during his true freshman season prior to serving his mission, but he was recruited as a mike linebacker and he could give Kautai a run for his money as the starter there in 2014. Amone was considered the top linebacker in Central Florida coming out of Dr. Phillips High School in 2011. He grayshirted before serving a mission to Chile.

As noted in a previous outlook article, Hinds was a very highly-recruited talent who could end up playing on the defensive line. However, he was originally recruited to play the weak side linebacker spot in BYU’s 3-4 defense. Wherever he ends up, he has star written all over him.

In addition to losing five seniors, the Cougars also lose redshirt freshmen linebackers Trajan Pili (6-1, 225 Fr.) and Rylee Gautavai (6-0, 219 Fr.) to missionary service. Other linebackers in the pipeline currently serving missions include Sawyer Powell (Uraguay – January, 2015), Butch Pauu (Honduras – March, 2015), Nathan DeBeikes (England – July, 2015) and Addison Pulsipher (Uruguay – January, 2016).

Mendenhall also has two outside linebackers who have verbally committed for the 2014 recruiting class in Fred Warner (6-3, 205 Fr.) and Tyler Cook (6-3, 216 Fr.).

Cook had offers from several PAC-12 schools, as well as Boise State, Vanderbilt, Duke and Miami. Warner is a four-star athlete who is considered one of the best outside linebackers in the West. He committed to BYU last April, but the Cougars will have to fend off USC as signing day approaches. New Trojan head coach Steve Sarkisian had made a last-minute push for Warner’s services.

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