Provo • Hard to believe now, but there was a time in preseason camp that BYU football coaches worried about their defensive line, how they would replace standout Vic So'oto, and whether Romney Fuga would return from that devastating knee injury he suffered against Nevada last season.
Concern has been replaced by confidence.
"It is probably the deepest we have been at defensive line since I've been here," coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Starting left end Hebron "Loni" Fangupo and Fuga, a nose tackle in BYU's 3-4 defensive alignment, left last week's 38-28 win over Oregon State with minor injuries, but the Cougars plugged in freshman Travis Tuiloma for Fuga and 6-foot-6 skyscraper Matt Putnam for Fangupo and barely skipped a beat. Right end Eathyn Manumaleuna continued to be a major run-stopper, as the Cougars held OSU to 59 rushing yards.
Fangupo (ankle sprain) and Fuga (knee strain) are listed as day-to-day this week as the 5-2 Cougars prepare for 2-5 Idaho State on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium (1 p.m., BYUtv), but there's no panic in Provo. Sophomore Graham Rowley, who started the first two games, junior Jordan Richardson (he also made it back from a devastating knee injury) and senior Simote Vea provide more depth.
"I love it," Mendenhall said. "I am a defensive coach. I like physical play and I like players that demonstrate heart and grit and determination, and I like them to be bloodied at the end of the game. … I like it when the game is physical like that."
The defensive line's trademark has been girth, with Fangupo weighing in at 331 pounds, Fuga at 321 and Manumaleuna at 294. Mendenhall has called Fangupo, the transfer from USC, the strongest player he has ever coached.
The return of 2010 starter Putnam from academic ineligibility gives the D-line some height. Known for his ability to deflect or bat down passes, Putnam tipped one last Saturday that Brandon Ogletree intercepted.
"It is always good when you have a guy that's 10-feet tall and knocks down passes," Ogletree said of the former Box Elder High all-state basketball player.
Putnam's return is "really one of the great success stories," of the 2011 season, Mendenhall said Monday.
"Matt has already proven to be a big boost," the coach said. "He tipped a number of passes in that game, one of which caused an interception. And he recovered a fumble just by sheer effort, by trying harder than anyone else out there, either on the offensive line or defensive line. He wanted the ball more than anyone else, and you could see him pass a couple of players and dive on it. "
When he was cleared by the school to rejoin the team three weeks ago, Putnam was a member of the scout team, working in practice to help the regulars prepare for games. When clearance came from the NCAA for him to be eligible to play in games, Putnam moved to the traveling squad and even got in for a few plays against San Jose State.
"It is huge, because it gives us depth," Mendenhall said. "Those positions are ones that you have to keep throwing fresh bodies in."
BYU's massive defensive linemen
Player Ht/Wt Yr Comment
Hebron Fangupo 6-1/331 Sr. Strongest player
Romney Fuga 6-2/321 Jr. Run-stopper plugs up middle
Eathyn Manumaleuna 6-2/294 Jr. Still remembered for FG block
Graham Rowley 6-4/280 So. Started season as LE starter
Travis Tuiloma 6-2/320 Fr. NT of the future seeing time
Matt Putnam 6-6/271 Sr. Late arrival blocks lots of balls