Learning a new defense did not slow down BYU from stopping opponents last season. The Cougars finished in the Top 50 in several defensive categories while transitioning to a 4-3 scheme under new head coach Kalani Sitake.
BYU held opponents to just 19.5 points and 365.0 total yards per game. The Cougars did their best work at the line of scrimmage, allowing just 112.8 rushing yards per contest. They also had a knack for forcing turnovers, finishing the season with a 0.92 turnover margin. In both categories, BYU ranked among the top 10 FBS teams.
In switching out of Bronco Mendenhall’s 3-4 scheme, many BYU players discovered new things about their defensive abilities and it led to an uptick in the Cougars’ defensive production compared to what the team did in 2015.
“It’s a lot different playing the 3-4 outside linebacker compared to the 4-3,” senior linebacker Fred Warner said. “In Bronco’s defense, I wasn’t covering half as much as I was last season. But I knew I was completely capable of doing that and I had no problem doing that.”
BYU was no slouch defensively in Mendenhall’s final season in Provo. Two years ago, the Cougars allowed 22.8 points and 345.7 yards per game. They ranked among the Top 25 FBS teams in both categories.
On the other hand, BYU did see a major uptick in its ability to force turnovers under Sitake a year ago. The Cougars had finished with a 0.15 turnover margin in Mendenhall’s final campaign.
One key difference for players who played under both coaches is the 4-3 defense employed by Sitake frees up linebackers and defensive backs to take more chances. A 3-4 defense typically relies on having linebackers help generate a pass rush through blitzing. It can leave the middle of the field open against a good quarterback and allow for big gains.
Under a 4-3 alignment, more bodies up front can absorb pressure easier and generate a consistent pass rush without resorting to blitzes as often. This frees up the linebackers to drop back into coverage and help out the safeties and corners. It also opens the door for a ball hawk to gravitate to the ball and make their mark in generating takeaways.
BYU’s defensive scheme is modeled after what Sitake learned and implemented under Kyle Whittingham and Gary Andersen while he was an assistant coach at Utah and Oregon State. His players love the freedom it gives them to play to their own strengths.
“Bronco was very detail oriented in our defense,” junior linebacker Butch Pau’u said. “It was really cool to see everyone had a specific role and each role contributed to the other. You have the same thing with this defense, but this defense allows each and every one of us to play free and play our own game. You don’t have to change your playing style in order to fit the defense.”
One area where BYU struggled in adjusting to a new defensive scheme was passing defense. Last season, the Cougars increased to 252.2 passing yards per game after giving up 201.8 yards per contest in 2015. It dropped BYU from 31st to 96th nationally in that defensive category.
Generating a more threatening pass rush could be easier this season. Sione Takitaki is back with the Cougars after sitting out last season and will give an added punch as a edge rusher.
“…This defense allows each and every one of us to play free and play our own game. You don’t have to change your playing style in order to fit the defense.” — Butch Pau’u, junior linebacker
Takitaki showed an ability to be a disruptive force at defensive end in his first two seasons. He totaled 40 tackles 11 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries in 17 games over 2014 and 2015. The junior is eager to get back at it and show what he can do.
“It was difficult watching on the couch because I felt like I could help in many ways,” Takitaki said. “I’m just excited to be back. I know we’re going to do good with the pass rush. I have no doubt in my mind; 100 percent we’re going to do great.”
BYU is poised to make life tougher for opposing offenses this fall. The Cougars return many of their most important defensive playmakers from a year ago.
Warner, Pau’u and Francis Bernard were the top three tacklers in 2016. The linebacker trio combined for 249 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, five sacks, seven interceptions and four forced fumbles. Bernard will redshirt this season, but Warner and Pau’u are both back in action. In the secondary, Troy Warner led BYU with seven pass breakups while Dayan Ghanwoloku tied for second on the team with three interceptions.