BYU loses three key outside linebackers for 2012, but don't expect a drop off in performance next season.
Chief among the losses will be the injury-plagued Jordan Pendleton, who played in just seven games in 2011 and saw his season and BYU career come to an end following a knee injury sustained against TCU.
Also gone next year will be Jameson Frazier and Jadon Wagner, two guys that came to BYU as unheralded players but developed themselves into solid and productive D-1 players in Bronco Mendenhall's defensive system.
The Cougars also lose reserve inside linebacker Aveni- Leung-Wai, who never quite found a way to break into the two-deep during his time in Provo. He played in just four games as a senior.
Luckily for Mendenhall, he returns a tremendous amount of talent at linebacker, beginning with budding superstar Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 235 Jr.), who is on a path to becoming one of the very best linebackers Provo has ever seen. He is sure to appear on a number of preseason watch lists leading up to the kickoff of the 2012 season.
In 2011, Van Noy racked up 68 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. He also intercepted three passes, forced three fumbles, recovered a fumble and blocked a punt.
Those stats, as impressive as they are, don't really begin tell the whole story of just how big of an impact Kyle has on games. It seems that he has a knack for coming up with big plays at important times. Like against Ole Miss, where he forced a fumble, recovered it and took in for the touchdown that turned out to be the difference in BYU's 14-13 win.
Kyle has the ability to play either outside linebacker spot, but it's a good bet that he will man the Will position next year, a spot he shared with Wagner this past season.
Former inside linebacker Spencer Hadley (6-1, 230 Jr.) will move to the outside and is a good bet to earn the starting position opposite Van Noy at the Sam in 2012. He stepped up for an injured Brandon Ogletree and recorded a team-high 12 tackles in his first career start at Texas. In 2011, he totaled 45 tackles as a back up on the inside.
A former standout safety in high school, Hadley should be better served by playing on the outside and should be able to make a fairly smooth transition in Mendenhall's defense.
The Cougars return both Uona Kavienga (5-11, 236 Sr.) and Ogletree (5-11, 228 Sr.) on the inside for 2012.
Kavienga had 57 tackles and forced four fumbles with his hard-hitting style from the Mike position. His ability to plug up the middle of the line was a big reason that the Cougars finished in the top 20 in the country in both total defense and rushing defense in 2011.
Ogletree will return to the Buck spot after leading the team in tackles last season with 76 total stops. The McKinney, Texas native also recorded an interception, force two fumbles and recovered a fumble in 2011.
Mendenhall will have a number of talented players that will be expected to provide depth and production at linebacker in 2012.
Oregon State transfer Uani "Devin" Unga (6-1, 219 Jr.) should be a factor at one of the outside linebacker spots next season. The transfer from Oregon State saw playing time as freshmen for the Beavers and ending up seeing action in 25 games in his two seasons in Corvallis. He immediately caught the eye of coaches when he came into the program last season.
Unga is most likely to end up teaming with Hadley on the strong side next season, although it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could end up as the back up to Van Noy.
Alani Fua (6-5, 206 So.) is scheduled to return next year, and despite being listed at Sam last season, we think you could see him as the back up to Van Noy at Will in 2012.
He has some of the same kind of freakish athleticism and speed that Kyle is blessed with. Alani's only drawback is size. He is a legit 6-5, but tips the scale at just 206 pounds. If he can find a way to keep some weight on, he could be a monster for BYU in the future.
Also keep an eye on Teu Kautai (6-1, 212 Fr.) next season. Kautai redshirted last season after cutting his mission short to report for duty on Bronco's defense. Teu was recruited as a linebacker, but played quarterback at Oakridge School in Arlington, Texas where he threw passes to Ross Apo. He is considered an excellent athlete.
The wild card at outside linebacker is Ezekiel Ansah (6-6, 270 Sr.) from Ghana, Africa. Ziggy is another freak of an athlete. He is extremely fast and quick for a player his size. His only issue is experience, having never played the game until 2010.
He is likely to see time once again as a third-down, rush specialist at outside linebacker or stand-up defensive end. The BYU coaches have commented that he has NFL-level talent and if he can continue to develop, he could be an interesting piece to the defensive puzzle.
Expect Zac Stout and Austen Jorgensen to battle it out for the back up spot behind Kaveinga next season, assuming both are healthy. Stout redshirted last year while recouping from patellar tendon surgery on both knees, while Jorgensen underwent surgery in November after being hampered for much of the 2011 season with an injured shoulder.
Stout should be good to go for spring practice in March, which could give him a leg up on Jorgensen, who may not be fully healthy until closer to fall camp. Austen does have a redshirt year available to him if he needs it.
The back up situation at the Buck position could be best described as up in the air, with no clear cut solution behind Ogletree. Tyler Beck (6-1, 212 Jr.) may be the most likely answer, having returned from an ACL tear in 2010 to see time on the field last season. He became the back up at Mike to Kaveinga late in the season after Jorgensen went down. He recorded six tackles against Hawaii.
Another player to watch on the inside may be Kevan Bills (6-3, 232 Fr.). The former Timpview High star redshirted last season and looks to follow in the footsteps of his three brothers at BYU. Bills played a good deal of outside linebacker in high school and showed the ability to pursue sideline to sideline and cover backs out of the backfield. Those skills should make him a candidate to play the Buck in BYU's 3-4 defense.
That said, if Ogletree were to go down for some reason next year, Mendenhall would likely move Hadley back to the inside and shuffle things up a bit on the outside with Unga or Van Noy in order to get his four most talented linebackers on the field.
Players like Connell Hess, Tanner Cox, Cody Monson and Seth Probert will look to provide additional depth at linebacker in 2012. Keep an eye on Monson; he is the kind of under-the-radar type of player that seems to flourish under Bronco.
Comings and Goings
BYU also expects to add linebackers Butch Pau'u, Phillip Amone and Sawyer Powell to the program come national signing day next Wednesday. Other commits like Troy Hinds and Jherremya Leuta-Douyere could end up at linebacker as well.
Meanwhile a couple of notable players will leave the program for a time. Redshirts Lene Lesatele and Manoa Pikula are players that came in last season as freshman, but who are expected to head out on missions in 2012. Lesatele's future could be at defensive end when he returns, and expectations will be high for Pikula at Mike when he gets back.
Once again, linebacker should be one of the key strengths of the BYU team this coming season and the starting four should be one of the better units in the country under the direction of Bronco Mendenhall.
Potential Two-Deep at Linebacker for 2012
SAM: Spencer Hadley (Devin Unga or Ezekiel Ansah)
MIKE: Uona Kaveinga (Zac Stout or Austen Jorgensen)
BUCK: Brandon Ogletree (Tyler Beck or Kevin Bills)
WILL: Kyle Van Noy (Alani Fua or Teu Kautai)