Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at BYU

Sep 1, 2018; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats running back J.J. Taylor (21) runs with the football tackled by Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (95) during the first quarter at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

BYU Cougars

Head Coach: Kalani Sitake (5th season)

2019 Record: 7-6

2020 NFL Draft Picks: None

Overview: Of the seven FBS programs independent of a conference (Army, Connecticut, Liberty, Massachusetts, New Mexico State), BYU ranks an easy second behind only Notre Dame in terms of national significance, earning bowl game berths 13 of the past 14 seasons and producing 16 NFL draft picks during that time, including the No. 5 overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah (Detroit).

Like the Irish at Notre Dame, BYU’s storied history on and off the field and faith-based football has earned it some of the most loyal and passionate fans in the game. That passion is personified by former fullback turned head coach Kalani Sitake, who has guided the Cougars to seven victories over Power Five opponents since taking over four years ago, including road wins at Wisconsin in 2018 and Tennessee this past season, as well as home victories in 2019 against USC and Boise State, the latter of which was undefeated at 6-0 and ranked 14 in the country at the time.

While BYU’s record against the “big boys” warrants praise, consistency has long plagued the program. Along with their impressive victories the last few years against the Big Ten, SEC and PAC-12, for example, BYU also suffered losses in 2019 to Toledo, South Florida and San Diego State, as well as dropping the Hawaii Bowl 38-34 to the UH Rainbow Warriors on a supposedly neutral field in Honolulu.

Part of the reason for the Cougars’ struggles with consistency could simply be turnover.

Among the great things about BYU football is its commitment to community with its players often serving multi-year missionary services as part of the involvement with the Church of Latter-Day Saints. This sense of sharing carried over to BYU’s backfield in 2019, with a seemingly constant revolving door at quarterback and running back.

The Cougars were led in the passing game by then-sophomore Zach Wilson and freshmen Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall, who combined to throw for 3,549 yards and 19 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Wilson started nine games, completing 199 passes (compared to Romney’s 85 and Hall’s 46) but had just an 11-9 touchdown to interception ratio, throwing two picks in the bowl game loss.

Keeping the names straight at quarterback was much easier than in the running game, where the Cougars had a staggering 10 different runners register at least 17 carries last season. Redshirt freshman Sione Finau led the team with 359 rushing yards on just 59 carries (a 6.1 yard-per-carry average), earning one more yard than true freshman Lopini Kotoa, who led the team with 85 rushing attempts (4.2 YPC) and also chipped in 24 catches for 288 yards as a receiver.

The Cougars’ leading receiver last year was tight end Matt Bushman, who checked in with 688 yards and four touchdowns on 47 receptions and ranks as the team’s best NFL prospect on the offensive side of the ball. BYU’s track record at tight end is impressive, producing standouts like Todd Christensen, Itula Mili and Dennis Pitta, among others, and Bushman possesses the size and speed to generate at least middle round consideration.

The most physically dominant player on the team, however, is squatty nose guard Khyiris Tonga, who, frankly, gives off a similar vibe as recent BYU defenders Fred Warner (San Francisco 49ers), Kyle Van Noy (Miami Dolphins) and Ansah (free agent) in that he’s a star most college football fans won’t learn to appreciate until he is wreaking havoc in the NFL.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Khyiris Tonga, DT, 6-3, 340, 5.25, SR

With all due respect to Bushman and BYU’s merry-go-round at the skill position players, all eyes should be on Tonga whenever the Cougars return to the field.

Stamped with a three-star grade from recruiters after playing his prep ball at Granger High in West Valley, Tonga elected to stay close to home, agreeing to join Sitake, who then served as the defensive coordinator at the University of Utah. Tonga showed his commitment to Sitake, switching his allegiance to BYU (Utah’s biggest rival) while serving his LDS mission in Wichita, Kansas upon learning that the coach had taken over as the Cougars’ head coach.

It wasn’t just programs from the state of Utah battling over Tonga’s services. A host of “other” Pac-12 schools were interested, as well as the Oklahoma Sooners.

It didn’t take long for Tonga to make his presence felt at BYU once he returned. Lining up at nose guard, he played in all 13 games, registering 19 tackles, including four for loss, two sacks and three passes broken up. His production jumped as a sophomore with Tonga recording 30 stops with 4.5 for loss, including another two sacks, two pass breakups and a blocked kick against… you guessed it, Utah.

No all-conference team to celebrate his steady improvement, few across the country likely recognized Tonga jumping up to 45 tackles a year ago (including four for loss and a sack) – a very impressive number for an interior lineman of his bulk.

Major college football awards like the Nagurski and Outland Trophies, however, have since recognized Tonga on their preseason Watch Lists and scouts already are well aware of his game after he briefly considered making the NFL jump last year.

Strengths: Built like a boulder and is about as difficult to move. Built low to the ground with stubby limbs, giving him a natural leverage advantage. Terrific initial quickness for such a large man, immediately attacking centers with a powerful bull rush which can leave would-be blockers on ice skates.

Bulldozes through opponents like he’s wading through the surf on the beach, showing incredible core strength to work his way into the backfield. Feels double-teams coming and grows roots, anchoring his legs and creating a wall.

Check out Tonga buckling then-Wisconsin center, Tyler Biadasz, now a member of the Dallas Cowboys.

Much more athletic than his portly frame suggests, showing impressive lateral agility and straight-line to play the keys and pursue down the line of scrimmage. Willing to leave his feet in pursuit, crashing into ballcarriers with bone-rattling force.

Shows good timing and explosiveness as a leaper, as well, blocking a field goal against rival Utah (2018) and breaking up multiple passes each year of his career (seven total) – a rarity for a nose guard.

Initial quickness and power make Tonga an intriguing candidate for extra duties, including as a “Refrigerator-like” lead blocker in the red zone or runner, himself. Also spent time along the offensive line and tight end at BYU.

Graduated last spring with a degree in communications. Characterized as fun-loving and charismatic. Was offered a scholarship by Sitake at age 15… Participated in rugby and track and field in high school, along with football… No known injury or off-field issues of note.

Weaknesses: At his best collapsing interior running lanes in an era that doesn’t require as much of it. Much more athletic than he looks but Tonga is so broad, it is difficult for him to squeeze through gaps, forcing there to be a bit of a lane for him to be able to affect the quarterback unless simply bull-rushing through the center. Gets top-heavy, struggling to change directions to corral quicker ballcarriers. Like a lot of big guys, Tonga’s pad level rises as he tires and his effort to the flanks and downfield in pursuit can wane. Carries an awful lot of weight around his middle, raising questions about his ability to maintain proper conditioning and his long term durability. Gained nearly 50 pounds while serving his two-year mission…

NFL Player Comparison: Danny Shelton, Detroit Lions: Just like with the 6-2, 344 pound Shelton, it doesn’t take a 20-year NFL coaching veteran to understand that Tonga’s fit is inside collapsing rushing lanes and intimidating opposing skill-position players with his sheer size and explosive power. The team that invests too early of a pick could in Tonga could regret it, as Cleveland did with Shelton, peddling him to New England with a 2018 fifth round pick in exchange for third rounder in 2019, just three years after using the 12 overall selection on him. While their run-plugging role may be diminishing, it remains important and Tonga is one of the nation’s best, warranting Day Two consideration, at least.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Second-Third Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at BYU:

1. Khyiris Tonga, DT, 6-3, 340, 5.25, SR

2. Matt Bushman, TE, 6-4, 245, 4.65, SR

3. Tristen Hoge, OG, 6-4, 301, 4.95, rSR

4. James Empey, C, 6-3, 300, 5.10, rJR

5. Devin Kaufusi, DE, 6-6, 255, 4.90, JR

6. Zach Wilson, QB, 6-2, 210, 4.80, JR

7. Max Tooley, ILB, 6-1, 222, 4.65, rSoph

8. Brady Christensen, OT, 6-5, 295, 5.10, rJR

9. Isaiah Kaufusi, OLB/SS, 6-2, 210, 4.60, SR

10. Kavika Fonua, OLB, 6-0, 205, 4.60, rSR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates