Defensive line goes ten deep for Cougars in 2021
It has happened countless times during BYU football games in 2021: A play ends and the Cougars send six or seven substitutes into the game on the defensive side, bringing to mind a line change during a hockey game.
One of the areas head coach Kalani Sitake vowed to improve when he took over the program in 2016 was depth. In BYU’s streak-breaking 26-19 victory against rival Utah last Saturday as many as 56 Cougars got into the game on offense, defense and special teams according to the game log. A total of 19 players received reps on the defensive side. The defensive line rotation was ten deep, with eight logging at least one tackle.
“We run deep and play a bunch of guys,” BYU defensive coordinator Iliasi Tuiaki said this week on the Coordinator’s Corner Show. “We feel like it’s important for our future to continue to invest in the the young guys and getting those guys reps and for us to develop guys when we can in big games. We have a lot more youth this year but certainly we trust them.”
The defensive line includes just one senior in defensive end Uriah Leiataua. He’s been joined in the rotation by juniors Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Lorenzo Fauatea and Pepe Tanuvasa; sophomores Atunasia Mahe and Gabe Summers and freshmen Caden Haws, Tyler Batty, John Nelson and Blake Mangleson.
So far, the depth has helped limit what Tuiaki said is the only statistic truly important to him: Points. Arizona scored 16 points and Utah 17 in the first two games.
The early contributions from Nelson and Mangleson have been a pleasant surprise for the coaching staff.
Nelson comes from a long line of athletes. His grandfather played football at Utah State. His mother, the former Amberli Gustin, played basketball at BYU and his father David played basketball at Boise State.
His cousins are NFL linebacker Porter Gustin and current BYU basketball player Lauren Gustin. Nelson has a brother, James, who plays college basketball at Northwest Nazarene in Idaho.
John Nelson was a two-year starter and all-state selection at Salem Hills High School in 2019 and said he was planning on serving a church mission until the pandemic hit. He opted to greyshirt and wasn’t on the BYU roster in 2020.
“I was sad that I wasn’t playing football,” Nelson said. “I’ve been playing since I was in the first grade so I was pretty discouraged.”
Nelson said he worked in Salem loading and delivering gravel until he was able to join the Cougars in January.
“I really liked the environment and love working hard,” Nelson said. “I’ve always been a leader on my football teams so it was humbling to sit back and learn from the older guys. I wasn’t really worried about beating anyone out. I was just doing the best that I can do. When I got the nod to play in the first game against Arizona, I wasn’t surprised because I was more confident than I’ve ever been. I was really grateful for the opportunity.”
Nelson had about a dozen reps on the defensive line in the Utah game.
“Utah is in the Pac 12 and every high school kid in the state wants to get that offer,” he said. “I went up there and they passed on me, so it was extra personal for me.”
Defensive ends and hybrids coach Preston Hadley credits Sitake for creating a team culture where ten defensive linemen are willing to share reps.
“It’s a team-first mindset,” Hadley said. “The way college football goes, you can play as many as 85 snaps a game on defense and guys won’t last. It’s about keeping guys fresh. We’re not seeing a big dropoff between the first and second groups.”
Hadley added that the defensive linemen “are a bunch of bulls.”
“Usually when guys are fatigued they are leaving their feet and missing tackles. We get stronger as the game goes on. We’d rather have a guy out there at 100 percent on critical plays. It’s a good system and the players are doing a good job of buying into it.”
Hadley praised the efforts of Mangleson, who prepped at 3A Juab High School in Nephi and also joined the Cougars in January.
“We knew that John and Blake have very high ceilings,” Hadley said. “In the first game Blake played about 15 snaps. He only played four snaps against Utah but it was on their last drive. He’s a long, athletic, strong guy who was getting in their passing lanes and pressuring the quarterback. He practically pushed their offensive tackle into the quarterback’s lap.”
Nelson said he and his fellow defensive linemen are loving life as they share playing time and support each other.
“We rotate more than any other position group on the team,” he said. “We’re not counting the reps. We’re making the reps count.”
University Photographer BYU’s Atunasia Mahe (62) celebrates a big defensive play against Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (BYU Courtesy Photo)
Ryan Campbell BYU freshman defensive lineman Blake Mangleson.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU BYU’s Uriah Leiataua (58) celebrates a sack against Arizona at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (BYU Courtesy Photo)
Ryan Campbell BYU freshman defensive lineman John Nelson. (BYU Courtesy Photo)