POCATELLO — A young group, a new coach, and a mixed track record — on an Idaho State football team that seemingly has starters coming back across the board, the defensive line is one of the biggest question marks.
The Bengals played well against the run last year but had a mediocre pass rush, with just 17 sacks in 11 games.
This year, both coaches and players think the Bengals could potentially be deeper and more dangerous, but it’s still up in the air as the season approaches.
Adding to the uncertainty is former defensive line coach Steve Fifita’s resignation, first reported on Aug. 19, which forced the Bengals to quickly find a replacement.
ISU announced former Utah defensive tackle and graduate assistant Lei Talamaivao as Fifita’s replacement on Aug. 21, giving the new coach just over two weeks to work with his players before the Bengals’ season opener against Western Colorado on Sept. 5.
“It’s been hectic, to say the least,” Talamaivao said Monday. “First of all, my wife and I are excited for this opportunity. They say in the coaching world, your first main job is the hardest one, and it’s been hectic, but we’re excited to be here.”
So far, it looks like Talamaivao is fitting in well.
“All of us, we were really welcoming for him,” Kainoa Fuiava, a junior defensive end, said. “We knew about his background of him being at Utah with coach Fifita. We knew that it was going to be another great guy like him that was just going to pick up right where Fifita left off. Just hearing his philosophy, basically everything matched up the same with Fifita, so it was a great coaching switch.”
Fuiava, who was honorable mention all-Big Sky Conference in 2018 with 50 tackles and 2.0 sacks, is the main returner on the D-line.
He looked good in the early part of fall camp, winning a lot of one-on-ones against an experienced offensive line. If the Bengals have a better pass rush this year, Fuiava stepping up will likely play a big role.
“Kainoa needs to have a good season,” head coach Rob Phenicie said. “He was honorable mention all-conference last year as a sophomore. He’s really changed his body. He got here in January of 2018, and he’s put the time in the weight room. ... He can be a dynamic player when he wants to be.”
Also returning is junior TJ Togiai, a local product from Highland High School. He’s played in all 22 games the past two years, and had 44 tackles and 2.0 sacks in 2018. He’ll likely fill the nose tackle position this year.
The favorite to take the third starting spot next to those two is senior Gilbert ‘Bubba’ Varela, who appeared in 10 games and racked up 19 tackles last year in his first season at Idaho State after transferring from Long Beach City College.
The trio knows where it fell short last season.
”What I did really well was stopping the run,” Fuiava said. “Mainly, my focus (this year) is on getting more knockback into the backfield, turning them into tackles for loss ... and then, even though we have a three-man front, my main goal is just to put pressure on the quarterback, just be in the backfield all day. Be disruptive.”
Behind them is a whole bunch of depth, both experienced and not.
Phenicie has been high on redshirt freshman Garrett Crane and sophomore Terrance Jones throughout the fall, after both got some sporadic game action last year.
Crane was a basketball star at Highland before playing football his senior year, and Jones moved from linebacker to the defensive line in the spring.
”Coming in, I just had to kind of be a sponge and learn off everybody and actually learn how to use my hands, use my hips,” Crane said. “Every single day, just learn something new and gather more information from each older guy, and just get better and better. ... It was nice getting better and actually learning things instead of when I was in high school, trying to use basketball moves instead of actually understanding what was going on.”
Those two might be the backup D-ends, along with Raemo Trevino at the backup nose tackle spot, but it’s tough to tell.
Senior Majerle Taugavau and junior Anthony Parker, both junior college transfers, are experienced enough to get reps, and Rasheed Williams’ health is still a mystery, although it’s looking more and more likely that the Bengals will go into the season without him.
Fuiava also praised freshmen Nick Larriva and Will Vea.
The good news is that ISU will have roles for all of its defensive linemen. Phenicie and defensive coordinator Roger Cooper like to mix and match on the line.
”You have to have two-deep, because you want to keep fresh bodies out there on the field,” Phenicie said. “You can’t expect defensive players to play 80 plays like offensive linemen and guys like that. The dynamic on defense is so much different because they’re chasing the ball every play.”