Anyone cutting through the middle or trying to come up the gut of the BYU football team’s defense in the last couple of years has had to deal with linebackers Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga.
Those two athletes, rock-solid at anchoring the center of the Cougar defense for so long, are now hoping to get a shot at taking their skills to the next level.
Meanwhile, BYU hopes other players, guys like senior Uani Unga, sophomore Manoa Pikula and senior Tyler Beck, are ready to fill the void.
It’s an interesting balance for the athletes and inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell, since they don’t want to think too much about the loss of the talent of the past — but they do want to use the examples of Ogletree and Kaveinga to get better.
“I know some of our leaders left from the position we are filling in and they are big shoes to fill in, but I think we are doing well,” Unga said. “Minoa is young, but he’s doing good stepping in there. We try not to think about the past, although it’s good to look back but we just try to do our best.”
But he added he hopes to learn by doing some of the same things he saw the seniors do to make themselves better.
“Kaveinga and Ogletree were great examples last year on how to learn more about that position and how to play,” Unga said. “They were always in the film room and studying. That gives us a good picture of what we need to do this year to keep that going.”
Tidwell said he sees it as being an opportunity, but one that shouldn’t be overstated.
“I hope they feel like they need to step in and fill the shoes, but I hope they don’t feel pressure,” he said. “We don’t pressure them. The only time I would ever refer to Brandon or Uona is if I’m teaching from something that they did. They shouldn’t feel pressure but should be themselves and have their own individuality, make their own mark.”
As Pikula pointed out, the next group of athletes working to take over those positions aren’t new.
“All of us got some experience, so it’s not like we’re completely clueless about what we are supposed to do,” he said. “We all know what we are supposed to do. Now it’s our chance.”
Thus far in spring, Tidwell said he likes the progress being made by the unit.
“Uani Unga is doing a great job not only with his leadership but what he’s doing on the field,” the coach said. “He just needs more repetitions.
“It’s the same with the “Buck” position. There is a really good competition there between Manoa Pikula and Tyler Beck. Beck is going into his senior year and has some good experience, plus he brings leadership as well. I expect a lot from him and from Manoa.”
He also pointed to the work being done by freshman Toloa’i Ho Ching and mentioned that sophomore Teu Kautai might end up playing both inside and outside linebacker.
“I’m happy and pleased with the inside linebackers but there is still a lot of work to do,” he said.
One of those areas is communication with the defensive line, as the inside linebackers play a big role in getting everyone on the same page.
“They have to do a good job helping the defensive line get lined up, with the communication and calls,” Tidwell explained. “The defensive line does a good job taking double teams and keeping the offensive line off our guys so they can run and make plays. They all have to work together.”
Pikula said that being more vocal is something he is trying to develop during spring.
“I’m kind of a quiet guy and so I see things and in my head I’m saying them, but I need to be more vocal,” he said. “If I am, it will help out the defensive backs and Uani with under routes and things like that. I need to work on saying it louder.”
Unga also wants to see the defense keep up with the pace and intensity that is being created on the other side of the ball.
“We started good this spring with the pace of the offense,” he said. “Our defense is trying to keep up with the offense now, and I think that is good for us. We just need to keep it up. We can’t let spring finish off soft. We have to hit it like we did when we started.”
Both Unga and Pikula stated that a big key is making sure they are ready mentally.
“A lot of it is studying right now,” Pikula said. “I have a good idea of what our defense is about but I really need to be more of a student of the game. You can never know too much. I need to watch more film so I’ll know what I’m doing and I can play faster. I want to be more assignment-sound and I feel like everything else will fall into place.”
According to Unga, the overall goal is to maintain the level of performance set by their predecessors.
“We’re always trying to get better and they set a high bar last year,” he said. “I think the guys this year are excited to keep that up and even do better this year.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.