It was no secret that life after Kyle Van Noy was going to be difficult for the BYU defense.
When the face of the defense made his way to the NFL, everybody knew there would be a massive hole to fill. Who would be the player to apply the constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks? Who would be the guy to sniff out the screen pass after being double teamed by a pair of offensive linemen? And most importantly, who would make big plays on 3rd down to get the BYU defense off the field?
While all four of the games this season have been decided victories for the Cougars, the BYU defense has hit a bit of a rough patch, specifically in the last two contests. It had a disastrous five minutes against Houston (including that gosh awful hail mary) and then they proceeded to give up 500+ yards of total offense for the first time since Christian Ponder and his Florida State cronies literally and figuratively tore up the field at LES.
That isn't to say that this BYU defense won't flat out smack their opponents in the mouth and is a bad unit. Craig Bills has flattened at least one wide receiver each game, and Zac Stout has gone on a bit of a mean streak of his own. The only problem is that the majority of these massive hits are coming beyond the line of scrimmage instead of behind it. Rob Daniel has made a lot of plays this year, as well.
The most telling stat is the number of sacks the BYU defense recorded against Houston and Virginia, with the correct answer being ZERO.The physicality is definitely there, but the athleticism might be lacking.
It's also easy point the finger at first year defensive coordinator Nick Howell. He has shown that he isn't afraid to dial up the blitz. In the second half of each game against Houston and Virginia, Howell started sending two or three extra guys to put pressure on the quarterback. There were a few times in which the blitz would result in an early release or pressure, but just as often the offensive line would pick up the blitz with ease, giving opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to throw.
So what is it BYU needs in order to get back on track defensively? The Cougars need a playmaker.
More specifically, they need a playmaker in the front seven of the defense that can be disruptive. We don't need to see a clone of KVN (although we most certainly would take one), rather, we need someone who can strike a little fear in the opponent.
BYU fans assumed that veteran OLB Alani Fua would be "the guy" this year. Coming into the season, it seemed as if he would be the natural choice to fill the void of Kyle Van Noy due to his large, athletic frame and the flashes of brilliance he showed last season. While he has certainly had his moments so far this season, they have only been just that. Moments. It might be a little presumptive to assume that Alani is taking plays off, but there were multiple times on Saturday in which fans could have asked if he was even on the field, which is surprising for someone of his talent.
There is a good chance that Bronson Kaufusi could be the missing link to this front seven. In his only complete game, against UConn, Bronson recorded two sacks and recovered a fumble. While Bronson isn't exactly known for his ability to make plays in zone coverage against the pass, he is a solid edge rusher -- and that's all BYU needs him to do at this point.
There are a couple other young bucks (Harvey Langi, Fred Warner, Sae Tautu) that have showed promise in the first few games, but it won't be until next season that we will realistically get to see them start making plays on a consistent basis.
Regardless of who decides to step into this role and (partially) fill the void left by Kyle Van Noy, it needs to happen soon. The upcoming slate of games is a tougher than it appears on paper, and BYU should know by now that being undefeated means that they are going to get every opponent's best effort. Having a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball would certainly be a welcome sight.