The most dominant unit in the Big Sky Conference over the past few years has been Weber State’s defense.
In three out of the past four years, head coach Jay Hill’s Wildcats have led the conference in total defense, earning three straight playoff bids and back-to-back Big Sky crowns along the way.
The defining characteristic of those units has been depth. When you have that much defensive talent, you’re bound to lose great players every year, and in each of the last three years, Weber has graduated at least one first team all-conference defender, leaving big holes to fill.
In 2016, it was linebacker Tre’von Johnson, now with the Los Angeles Chargers. In 2017, it was defensive tackle McKay Murphy and corner Taron Johnson, the latter the Big Sky Defensive MVP and a potential starter with the Buffalo Bills this season.
But what the Wildcats are facing this year is something else entirely.
All told, Weber State is losing six seniors that were on the first team all-Big Sky defense a year ago — defensive lineman Filipe Sitake, linebackers Landon Stice and LeGrand Toia, cornerback Keilan Benjamin, and safeties Jordan Preator and Jawian Harrison.
That’s half a unit worth of stars that the Wildcats will have to replace — and that’s just to get back to the level that they were at in 2018, when they lost in the national quarterfinals for the second year in a row.
Those two losses have come by a total of eight points — a 31-28 setback to No. 1 overall seed James Madison in 2017 and a 23-18 loss to Maine last year.
Those are the kinds of losses that leave teams with motivation. This year, everyone in the program is focused on getting past that stage, and to do it, they’ll have to be even better.
Hill is confident that his team can pull it off, and he has a couple good reasons to feel that way.
The first is that they’ve done it before.
“We were in the exact same stage last year,” Hill said. “We’d lost (cornerbacks) Taron Johnson, Xequille Harry, we’d lost all our safeties, and last year the guys stepped up and with brand new faces in our secondary last year, three of them ended up being first-team all-conference. So we’ve got to have the exact same thing repeat itself this year.”
The second is that it won’t be a completely new-look defense, and that starts with the best pair of defensive ends in the conference.
As juniors, Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams joined their now-graduated comrades on the first-team defense.
Having them back gives the Wildcats a great platform on which to build another dominant defense.
“They’re definitely two of the best in the league,” Hill said. “Jonah Williams is different; he’s big, physical. I don’t know if there’s a tight end that can block him in the country. … Adam Rodriguez just has that it factor, he just knows how to get to the quarterback. He’s disruptive, he’s a football player, he gets how to play the game. So those guys complement each other very well.”
As Hill said, the two have games that work well together on opposite sides of the line.
Williams, at a rock-solid 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, holds down the strong side, and had 42 tackles and seven tackles for loss last year.
“We’re just going to get after the quarterback and get him flustered so he makes bad throws and our DBs can intercept it,” Williams said. “That’s always the goal. Us being veteran, I hope to just have a great season, play off each other better in actual games and just dominate as a D-line.”
At the other end spot, Rodriguez is a pass-rusher extraordinaire. As a junior in 2018, he finished with 61 total tackles, seven sacks (third in the conference) and 15 tackles for loss (fourth).
Due to his smaller frame — Rodriguez is listed at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds — he wasn’t very heavily recruited coming out of high school in Springville, Utah, allowing Hill to snap him up.
“I think he had like 25 sacks his senior year in high school,” Hill said. “He’s somebody that if he was an inch taller, we would have never touched him, he’d have been a Pac-12 defensive end. … We were able to get him, and he’s developed into exactly what we thought he was. He’s a pass-rush phenom, and … if he goes into the season healthy and stays healthy, he’ll be a terror to deal with.”
Behind them, sophomore Noah Vaea, who played in all 13 games last year, and senior Auston Tesch, who was third-team All-Big Sky, will step into the roles vacated by Stice and Toia.
The secondary is a little more unsettled, but whoever ends up playing will have a lot to live up to, enforced by a culture led by players who have been there before.
“We’ve definitely set an expectation on defense for dominating, and so the young guys that are coming in, they’re young, but they know that expectation,” Williams said. “I know us older guys have pulled some of the younger guys aside and said, ‘Hey, you may be starting, even though you’re young, but that doesn’t mean you’re a super good player or anything.’ You gotta be able to put that time in with the film and get to that level where you’re ready to start.”
If the Wildcats can really pull off another reload instead of a rebuild, they could be poised to take a step further in the playoffs than they’ve ever gone before.
“The more you’re there, the better you get at that experience,” Hill said. We handled it good each of the two years, but we’ve got one step we’ve got to take forward, and that’s a matter of making the right play, or the big play at the right time. … When you get up and you’re one of those last eight teams in the playoffs, you’d better be really good to advance. We’ve been right there, but we’ve got one step left to take.”