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Ranking the Best BYU Defensive Backs in the Kalani Sitake Era

From big-time interceptions to trick-play touchdowns, BYU has had a versatile crop of defensive backs under Kalani Sitake.

NCAA Football: California at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Kalani Sitake is entering his sixth season at the helm of BYU football. Being a defensive-minded coach, he had his hand in developing several solid defensive players for the Cougars over the last five seasons.

These defenders made key plays in key moments to seal victories and make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. One even made an impact on offense as well as defense.

Let’s dive in to the top five defensive backs during Sitake’s time at BYU.

5. Austin Lee (2017-2019)

Lee started his college football career at Utah in 2015. After serving his mission, he transferred to BYU and immediately made an impact. He played in eight games in 2017, racking up 15 tackles.

In 2018, he played in 12 games and made 41 tackles. Against Hawaii, he collected his first career interception. In the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Western Michigan, he nabbed another interception in the blowout win.

His senior year of 2019 was his best as a Cougar. He started 11 games and collected a career-high 55 tackles. In the dramatic overtime win over Tennessee, Lee posted six tackles, one of which was for loss, and two pass breakups. Against Idaho State, Lee snatched an interception and ran it back 26 years for a touchdown.

During his three years at BYU, he amassed 111 tackles with three interceptions.

4. Troy Warner (2016-2020)

Warner came to BYU with much fanfare as a four-star defensive back out of San Diego, who also had offers from Oregon, USC and Notre Dame among others. He also is the younger brother of current NFL All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner. Warner set off for Provo eager to create his own legacy.

He appeared in 10 games during his freshman year, with 21 tackles and seven pass breakups. He played in every game in 2018, with 24 tackles and two pass breakups. After battling injuries, he put together a solid senior year in 2020. He amassed 29 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions. Overall, he collected 121 tackles and 16 pass breakups in his career while showing his versatility and athleticism in multiple roles on defense.

The Los Angeles Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent following the 2020 NFL Draft.

3. Chris Wilcox (2016-2020)

Wilcox played sparingly during his freshman year in 2016 but became a regular starter in 2017, when he collected 32 tackles.

His 2018 season was cut short by injury. However, it wasn’t before he made an impact, racking up 28 tackles including nine takedowns in the big upset win over No. 6 Wisconsin. After his injury during the game against Northern Illinois, he missed significant time, not seeing the field again until November of 2019 against Idaho State.

In 2020, he took large strides towards becoming a solid corner. In nine games, he made 18 tackles and built a reputation as one of the most consistent cornerbacks in this draft class. Pro Football Focus ranked him 285th on their draft big board. He was eventually selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the seventh round of the 2020 draft, becoming the first defensive back drafted out of BYU since 1993.

2. Dayan Ghanwoloku (2017-2019)

Ghanwoloku did a little bit of everything at BYU. He played cornerback during his freshman year, hauling in two interceptions for 113 total return yards, including a 50-yard pick-six against Boise State.

He started all 13 games at corner in 2017 and collected two more interceptions.

He began bouncing between corner and safety during his last two seasons in Provo. In 2018, he began being part of trick plays on offense which led to him getting a rushing touchdown in the bowl game against Western Michigan.

In 2019, he was named First Team All-Independent after collecting 62 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble forced, two fumble recoveries, two sacks and a rushing touchdown in their upset win over USC.

The Liberia, Africa native was all over the field for Sitake. He rose to the occasion often when the team needed it most, like an interception against USC. Over his career, he totaled 203 tackles, six interceptions, two offensive touchdowns and a defensive score.

1. Kai Nacua (2016)

Nacua played most of his career at BYU under Bronco Mendenhall, from 2013 to 2015, before finishing his career under Sitake in 2016. The reason why he is ranked No. 1 on this list despite playing just one year under Sitake is the fact that his senior season was just that productive.

He played in all 13 games that year and collected a whopping six interceptions, which was the most by a Cougar defender in 30 years, and good enough for seventh in the nation. Two of those picks came against Utah. He ended up with 14 career interceptions, one of the best careers by any BYU defensive back.

In his last game of his career, the Poinsettia Bowl against Wyoming, his interception of Josh Allen late in the game helped seal the bowl victory for the Cougars.