Each of the leading tacklers on the BYU football team for the past couple of years have been impressive: Brandon Ogletree in 2012 (102 tackles) and Uani ‘Unga in 2013 (143 tackles).
Although they played different positions, both were inside linebackers for the Cougars.
There’s no doubt that the guys who patrol the middle of the BYU defense play a key role in stopping opposing offenses, particularly in getting guys on the ground.
But for the second straight season, the Cougars had both of the starters complete their college eligibility (Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga in 2012, ‘Unga and Tyler Beck in 2013).
That means the door is open for the next great BYU inside linebacker to step forward and right now, the smart money is on junior Manoa Pikula.
“Pikula is the clear standout at this point,” Cougar head football coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We like our outside backers but inside isn’t as clear. Manoa Pikula has had a nice spring and we moved Jherremya Leuta-Douyere into the Buck linebacker position, but we’re looking for at least two more players to emerge. That one won’t be solidified until fall.”
Pikula comes in with some experience, having registered 31 tackles, five tackles for a loss and three sacks last fall.
“I think Manoa could be the next great one here,” BYU inside linebacker coach Paul Tidwell said. “He played as a freshman and started some games last year as a sophomore, so he’s going to be the core of that meeting room and the guy who is the glue for that group.”
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Pikula has size but he also has plenty of athleticism.
“I like Manoa a bunch,” BYU defensive coordinator Nick Howell said. “ I think he’s a really good player. Now it’s his transition to Mike linebacker and becoming a leader. He’s one guy that when you watch him, you can just feel that he’s playing with a ton of passion and energy and he’s physical. I think he just needs to continue to get comfortable there, because it’s different.”
Pikula has been waiting for his chance to step in and show just how much he can do but he said he understands that he has to take advantage of the opportunity.
“I’m very grateful for what I’ve got right now,” he said. “Tomorrow is never really promised. I feel like I learned from last year that you’ve got to be hungry, never be really satisfied with the position you’ve got. I’m trying to come in humble and just do work, then let everything fall in place.”
The junior explained that he’s really zeroed in on improving his coverage this spring.
“The thing I want to get out of spring is my coverage,” he said. “I want to get it very assignment-sound. I want to work on coverage a lot because I feel our DBs are solid, so if teams will target one place, it will be the middle. That’s the place I’ve got to work on.”
To get better in that area, Pikula is working with Craig Bills, Dallin Leavitt and Rob Daniel to understand what the secondary is seeing.
“I’m working with our safeties so we can watch film together so I know where my help is,” Pikula said. “I can watch film by myself all the time, but I would think I’m dropping deep enough and the DBs would say I’m not deep enough. I feel like it’s helping me a lot.”
But as Mendenhall pointed out, the Cougars need other guys to step up as well. Tidwell said he’s been lucky in the past to have plenty of guys ready to step in and play.
“It’s been a feast around here for the last four years at inside backer,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of good ones. The sad part of this job is to see those seniors move on. Then you start all over with a new bunch. I’ve got to go to work now and coach up these young guys and get them ready for the season.”
It’s a young group right now with very little inside backer experience. Leuta-Douyere is learning the position while Zac Stout, Adam Pulsipher and Austin Heder are all getting back into football shape.
Tidwell said the limited experience makes spring pretty important for a number of his athletes.
“The most important thing for me is to come together as a group and to lead the defense verbally, making the calls and bring the defense together,” he said. “In spring we’re looking for them to learn the schemes, get a ton of reps and learn how to play physical.”
But Pikula and the others are determined to make the most of the opportunity and continue the tradition that has been established by guys like ‘Unga over the last few years.
“Uani set the bar high,” Pikula said. “I appreciate that and that’s just going to make me work harder. The only thing I can do is work on what I can, try to get better every day and not focus on filling in his shoes. The focus is on being the best I can be, helping my team out anyway I can.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.