The adage “change is the only constant” rings true in everyday life, but if we’re being honest, it should be the official slogan of NCAA Football.
Fred Warner knows this all too well. Back in 2013 when he committed to play for BYU, it was (to say the least) under drastically different circumstances.
Coming out of Mission Hills High School in California, Warner was unofficially named the heir apparent to all-world linebacker (and now Super Bowl champion) Kyle Van Noy. Former head coach Bronco Mendenhall had established a brand of football on his unique 3-4 defense that relied on athletic outside linebackers to make big plays, and Fred Warner was the next in line. In addition to the aforementioned Van Noy, Alani Fua, Colby Clawson, Spencer Hadley and David Nixon all paved the way before him.
Four years later, Warner has put himself in a position to be one of the best linebackers in recent history, but he’s not doing it in the 3-4 defense and he’s not playing under Bronco Mendenhall.
Since the arrival of Kalani Sitake and his defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, Warner made the switch from outside speed-rush specialist to strong side linebacker in the new 4-3 setup. A shakeup like that could have derailed someone like Fred who was groomed for Mendenhall’s specific system, but he more than made the most of his new situation.
In 2016, Fred Warner lead the team in tackles (86) while also recording 10.5 tackles for loss, intercepting three passes and breaking up six pass attempts. Unlike other Cougar linebackers who were either known for their pass rushing, pass coverage or run stuffing, Warner is a model of consistency as he is more than proficient in all three categories. He’s already being recognized on national level as one of the best linebackers in the country.
In this his senior season, Warner will lead what should be BYU’s most talented position group on the team. In addition to Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard return as the starting middle and weak-side linebackers respectively. They may not possess the same physical traits as Warner but they’re most definitely not lacking in talent.
Even after suffering a nagging leg injury that kept him out of a few games, Butch Pau’u was a gosh dang menace to opposing offenses. Impressive tackling totals aside (he had 19 in one game against UCLA) Pau’u made his presence felt on the field in a way that not only passed the eye test but also the ear test. In consecutive weeks, Butch would fly through the line of scrimmage to deliver blow so loud and vicious that audiences at home would wince in empathy for the poor soul who just got blasted. If he’s able to remain healthy, he should be able to lead the team in tackles.
Francis Bernard was the wildcard of the three linebackers in 2016 and was definitely a pleasant surprise. Many questioned if he would be able to make an immediate impact on defense after transitioning over from offense where he was a bruising fullback. He quelled those doubts quickly with a big game in the opener against Arizona where he recorded a huge sack and an interception. He followed that up with another interception against Utah, this one of the one-handed variety that reminded us that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that he used to play offense. There were still some growing pains throughout the year but he showed enough progress to keep our eyes on him this next season.
Warner, Pau’u and Bernard were all very good in 2016 and with some slight improvements in 2017 they can lead the defense to new heights. If Butch can stay healthy, if Francis can improve in pass coverage and if Fred can continue his steady trajectory upward in every aspect of his game then the linebackers might be able to cover for some inexperience on the defensive line.
Behind the Big 3, juniors Morgan Unga and Adam Pulsipher provide some experience and depth while underclassmen Isaiah Kaufusi and Johnny “Kuj” Tapusoa are unique talents that will have an opportunity to prove themselves as they will see the field at some point.
In the end the linebacking unit (and potentially the entire defense) will look to Warner to set the tone, setting him up to the be player that everyone hoped he would become when he first stepped on campus in 2014.
The coaching staff may have changed and the defensive philosophy has been replaced but Fred Warner remains, battle tested and ready to put his name in the same conversation as the greats who cam before him.