BYU seems to have no problem finding solid linebackers to plug into their defense. From Kyle Van Noy to Rob Morris, BYU boasts a strong history of linebackers.
Since Sitake took over for the 2016 season, the Cougars have continued to churn out solid backers. A few have even established themselves as solid NFL defenders.
Let’s break down the top five linebackers in the Kalani Sitake era.
5. Payton Wilgar (2018-Present)
This is the only one on the list that has a chance to rise up the boards in the 2021 season. He broke onto the scene in 2019, when he played in every game and collected 54 tackles. His three interceptions were second in the nation among linebackers. Thusly, he was named to the Pro Football Focus All-Freshman team.
He followed that up in 2020 with an equally solid season, amassing 57 tackles, five tackles for loss and a forced fumble, earning himself a spot on the second team All-Independent squad. He still has at least one season to build on his 111 career tackles.
4. Butch Pau’u (2015-2018)
Pau’u began his career during the Bronco Mendenhall era. When Sitake arrived in 2016, Pau’u’s career took off. He set a career with 83 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one interception. Against UCLA, he notched 19 tackles, which tied a BYU single-game record.
In 2017, he followed up that act with 74 tackles including three tackles for loss. His production tapered off due to injuries and a reduced role in 2018, collecting just 23 takedowns. Overall, he amassed 188 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss during his time at BYU including back-to-back seasons with at least 70 tackles.
3. Isaiah Kaufusi (2016-2020)
Kaufusi became a steady part of the defense in 2017, when he played in 11 of the 13 games. In 2018, he was third on the team with 50 tackles and collected two interceptions and was named to Phil Steele’s second team All-Independent squad.
2019 is when he took off. He played in all 13 games and accumulated 60 tackles. Toss in 4.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a forced fumble and the Cottonwood Heights, Utah native had a disruptive season on the Cougar defense. It all came together in 2020. He became one of the leaders on a solid defense that helped BYU achieve an 11-1 season.
He appeared in all 12 games during that pandemic-altered season, collecting a career-high 83 tackles. His 4.0 sacks tied for the team lead. Against Texas State, he ran back an interception for a 32-yard touchdown, one of five career picks for Kaufusi. He was one of the more well-rounded linebackers, being effective in tackling, pass rushing and defending the pass. He leads all Sitake-era linebackers with 204 career tackles.
2. Fred Warner (2014-2017)
If this were a ranking of who has had the most successful professional career, Warner would be the unanimous No. 1 pick as he was recently named First Team All-Pro for the San Francisco 49ers, who just gave him a lucrative contract extension. Even though he didn’t get the top slot in these rankings, he still had a wonderful career in Provo. Keep in mind, his ranking is also partly due to the fact that his very solid 2015 campaign was not taken into consideration, as it was during Bronco Mendenhall’s time as head man.
Be that as it may, Warner stuffed the stat sheet during his final two seasons in Provo. He led the squad in tackles in back-to-back seasons, with 86 in 2016 and 87 in his senior year. He was consistently in the backfield disrupting run and pass plays, displayed by his 19.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in his last two seasons, along with 173 total tackles.
And who could forget his acrobatic pick-six against Boise State in 2016?
1. Sione Takitaki (2014-2018)
Some might consider it heresy to put anyone over Warner now that he is considered one of the best defenders in the National Football League. However, strictly looking at the numbers from their time under Sitake, Takitaki gets the edge.
He did most of his damage under Sitake despite starting his BYU career in 2014. There were few bright spots during BYU’s miserable 2017 campaign but Takitaki was one of them. With 79 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks, Takitaki, along with Warner, held the defense together despite numerous challenges.
In 2018, Takitaki was clearly one of the best linebackers in the country. He is the only linebacker under Sitake’s tutelage to reach 100 tackles in a season thus far, as he racked up 118 tackles his senior year. He added nine tackles for loss and three sacks to his outstanding 2018 campaign.
His performance against Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl was one of the best bowl performances in BYU history. He tied a BYU single-game record with 19 tackles, along with one tackle for loss and one sack. For his efforts, he was named to USA TODAY and Sports Illustrated’s All-Bowl teams.
He finished his BYU career under Sitake with 198 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 9,0 sacks, the latter two being the best among linebackers during Sitake’s time in Provo. Now he is carving out a career with the Cleveland Browns, amassing 67 tackles in 2020 for Cleveland.