Mike check, mike check.
The “Mike” or middle linebacker position on BYU’s defense continues to be up for grabs as the Cougars move into Week 3 of fall camp.
The evolution of sophisticated offenses has forced defensive coaches to cultivate more than one type of athlete to play the middle linebacker spot.
“Over the past eight or ten years, teams have moved away from using a lot of fullback and multiple tight end sets,” said BYU linebacker coach and assistant head coach Ed Lamb. “Those linebackers, the ones who were just run-pluggers, guys built to take on fullbacks and offensive guards, they don’t do as well when in space. We’ve looked to recruit probably a little more and plan for what some people would call a 4-2-5 (formation) where at least one of the linebackers is a hybrid safety.”
Last season, sturdy senior Butch Pau’u started the season at middle linebacker, but eventually the spot went to Sione Takitaki, who used his sideline-to-sideline speed to make big plays. Takitaki was chosen by the Cleveland Browns in the third round in April’s NFL Draft.
The Cougars appear set on the outside with junior Isaiah Kaufusi and senior Zayne Anderson returning. But the middle linebacker spot is going to take some time to determine the rotation.
Junior Kavika Fonua, who started his career at linebacker, is back on the defensive side after moving to running back two seasons ago. Last year, Fonua — who ran a 4.48 40-yard dash and turned in a SPARQ score of 123.3 at the Nike Football Training Camp before his senior season at Syracuse High School — suffered a broken leg and missed nearly all of 2018. After healing, he approached coaches about moving back to the defensive side.
“I threw a little bone out there,” Fonua said. “They were like, ‘Yeah, we want to move you.’ I’m 100 percent behind them. I just asked them what they wanted me to do, and they told me I’d be a linebacker. I feel like more of my skills are on the defense. When I went to offense I was doing it for the team so we’d have more depth there. Now I’m coming to the defense. I said, ‘That’s where my heart is.’”
Lamb said his initial evaluation of Fonua during his freshman year in 2016 was not a good one.
“Early in the year, I felt like Kavika was loafing on kickoff cover,” Lamb said. “Then I started to chart him against the rest of the guys running down on coverage, and he was still the first one down. I had to change the way I evaluated him. He doesn’t look like he’s straining but he can really move. He has a long, powerful stride. He led the team in special teams tackles that year.
“I always liked him as a linebacker. He’s stout, he loves to tackle and there is a smart way that he approaches the game. Nothing is too big for him. He really enjoys the game of football.”
Since Fonua is a little on the lighter side (205-210 pounds), Lamb and the coaching staff are also taking long looks at freshmen Payton Wilgar (235 pounds), Jackson Kaufusi (225) and Alex Miskela (231) for short-yardage and goal line situations.
“Kavika is doing really well,” Isaiah Kaufusi said. “Our defense is pretty simple and he’s picked it up well. He hasn’t changed much since he left for the offensive side. We’re excited to have someone with experience at the middle linebacker position. He made a lot of tackles for us on special teams. He’s just another leader on the defense.”