Over the 12 years BYU played in the independence era, some great players rolled through Provo. Let’s take a look at the top five defensive players that donned the stretch Y during the last dozen years.
Disclaimer: this is not a list of who has had the most NFL success or the most “talent.” This is regarding their college career at BYU.
5. Sione Takitaki
Takitaki is one of those players that just got better and better each season. It ended with him starting all 13 games in 2018, leading the team with 119 tackles and was named to Phil Steele’s All-Independent First Team.
He finished his BYU career with a bang, with a whopping 19 tackles and a sack against Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. He recorded double-digit tackles six different times in 2018 alone.
After four seasons, he finished with almost 250 total tackles with 33.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks, before becoming a third round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns.
4. Bronson Kaufusi
The 6-foot-8 Kaufusi came out of Timpview High School as one of the top recruits in the state of Utah. He lived up to the billing during his time in Provo. He played in all 13 games as a freshman in 2012, collecting 4.5 sacks. He had a pick-six against Idaho State in 2013. Against Cincinnati in 2015, he tallied 3.5 sacks in one game. He also blocked four kicks that season, using his immense height, which led the entire nation.
Overall, he finished his BYU career third in BYU history for tackles for loss with 44 and second all-time in sacks since 2000, including fifth all-time in program history, with 25.5. He finished strong with 10 sacks in his senior year.
3. Kai Nacua
The saying goes “big time players make big time plays in big time moments.” Nacua was a big time player at BYU. He put together back-to-back seasons of six interceptions in 2015 and 2016. Two different times, he sealed a BYU victory with a clutch interception. First, against Boise State in 2015, he notched a pick-six to seal the dramatic win. He tied a BYU record with three picks in that game. Then in the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl, he intercepted future NFL star Josh Allen to seal BYU’s win over Wyoming.
He set the individual interception return yardage record at BYU in 2015. In 2016, he was named a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
He had three games with at least two interceptions in his career. He had a knack for making a play and was one of the elite ball hawks in BYU history, finishing with 14 career interceptions, fourth all-time at BYU, and the most since 1973.
2. Fred Warner
If this were a list of accomplished BYU defenders that were most successful in the NFL, Warner would top the list easily. He is one of the best pure athletes to play linebacker at BYU. A four-star prospect out of the San Diego, CA area, Warner was a boon to BYU’s defense for several years.
In his final two years, he was the top tackler on the team. He finished his BYU career with 262 total tackles, which is 24th all-time in school history. On top of that, it is the top mark among any BYU defender in the era of independence.
He sprinkled in two career pick-sixes, including one of the most athletic plays you will ever see from a linebacker against Boise State in 2016. He was a steady presence and senior captain during an otherwise turbulent and disappointing 2017 season.
Warner’s NFL career outshines even his stellar Cougars career, as a two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro for the San Francisco 49ers.
1. Kyle Van Noy
Van Noy is one of the greatest playmakers to ever play on a BYU defense. When fans think of Kyle Van Noy in a BYU uniform, most go right to the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl. He quite literally single-handedly won that bowl game for BYU over San Diego State, with a strip-sack turned touchdown and a pick-six to seal the deal. He was responsible for 12 points in the 23-6 victory. He also mixed in a blocked punt.
That 2012 defense for BYU is perhaps the greatest defense in school history. They ranked No. 3 in all the nation in yards and points per game allowed. Van Noy spearheaded that elite unit with 13 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and 53 total tackles. He had one of the best individual seasons in recent memory for a Cougar defender.
He ranks fifth all-time in sacks in BYU history and is the all-time leader in tackles for loss. The Nevada native always found ways to make plays.
His leadership on the best defense BYU has ever had, coupled with his elite playmaking ability, makes Van Noy the greatest defender in BYU’s independence era.
Now, he just finished his ninth year in the NFL and has been the part of two Super Bowl championships.