The 2021 NFL Draft is loaded with big names at linebacker with several of this year’s top prospects coming out of elite programs around the nation. Dig deeper into the class and you’ll find one of the most productive players at the position was Isaiah Kaufusi, out of BYU.
Kaufusi spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about his big senior season, serving a life-changing mission in Tonga, growing up in a football family, and how playing against star quarterback Zach Wilson in practice made him a better player.
JM: You had a big season in 2020. You totaled 83 tackles, an interception, and a couple of tackles for loss. How do you look back on your final season at BYU?
IK: I thought I had a great year. The biggest thing for me was to improve every year at BYU. I believe I did that. From my freshmen year to my senior year, I always got better. It was always about improvement. I felt really comfortable with the scheme this past year. I had more experience with our defense. I was used to it. It was a big reason why I took a step forward in my senior year. I played faster because of it. My football IQ is higher now than ever before. I’m excited about the numbers I put up. I still left a lot of plays out there, though. I wish I made more plays. That’s football for you.
JM: You had a strong season. You went on a mission in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. What was that like?
IK: That was very unique. My dad was born there. I got to go back and see my roots. I learned a bit of the language. Our family history is there. I was able to hold a conversation with my grandparents. Before that, I never had any real conversations with them because of the language barrier.
I understand more about where I’m from now. I saw the sacrifices that were made for someone like me to have a better life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my history and those that came before me. It was a very unique experience. I gained 45 pounds out there. It made me a better football player. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.
JM: Speaking of family, you have six uncles and 11 cousins that either played or currently play college football. I mean, wow. Talk about growing up in a football family.
IK: That was huge. It’s actually 14 cousins now (laughs). That number continues to grow. My little brother recently committed to BYU. There’s a lot of us (laughs). That was fun. We grew up around the game. We were always surrounded by it. As a family, we don’t talk about anything but football. We’ve all been able to play on scholarships. That’s huge. When my grandmother brought the family to the United States of America from the island, that was her thing. We didn’t have any money to pay for school. Playing football is a great way to get an education. She made sure all of us boys played football (laughs). It’s a great way to get school paid for. It led to better opportunities for every single one of us.
JM: That’s fantastic. What’s your favorite aspect of playing the linebacker position?
IK: I love being immersed in both the run game and the passing game. I’ve always been a very instinctive player. I have a good understanding of both run and pass concepts. I love playing in both aspects. I can stop the run. I can play in coverage. Interceptions are one of my favorite parts of the game. It’s our job to make plays at the end of the day.
JM: Speaking of interceptions, you had five of them at BYU. That’s pretty solid for a linebacker. How did you develop that area of your game?
IK: That’s always been one of my strong suits. The defense that we ran definitely freed up the linebackers to play fast and physical. We played free. A lot of that came from instincts. We still played within the scheme, but I was allowed to play free. We were a bit of a unique defense. We weren’t all that traditional. We weren’t a gap team. We had the freedom to flow. It was the same in the passing game. Of course, we had certain responsibilities, but I was also free to trust my instincts. Our coaches taught us how to read eyes. It wasn’t always about spot dropping or getting our eyes to certain areas. We read the QB’s eyes. It’s one of my strong suits. I love baiting QB’s into certain throws. I’ve always had really good hands. I love interceptions.
JM: And you got to practice this against one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. Wilson was your QB. We all expect him to get drafted second overall by the New York Jets this week. How did practicing against him make you better?
IK: Being able to see him develop up close was truly special. He was a great quarterback to practice against because he was always looking us off. He obviously knew a lot about our defense. He understood how we aimed to defend the pass. He definitely made us better. He looked us off. He threads the ball into tight windows. He’s the best quarterback I’ve ever played against and I never faced him in a game (laughs). He was my teammate. His ability to make plays is breathtaking. He can throw the deep ball. He was so much fun to play against. He definitely made our defense better.
JM: That’s some great insight into one of the top prospects in this class. I’ve really appreciated your time today. We wish you the best of luck this weekend. In closing, why should a team use one of its draft picks on Isaiah Kaufusi?
IK: You’re going to get a relentless worker. I’ve always found ways to create turnovers. I find ways to get to the ball. I work hard. I’m very comfortable. I’m a quick learner. That may be my best asset. You can teach me anything and I’ll pick it up. I’ll do it to the best of my ability. Football is all about possessions, blocking, and tackling. I tackle well and I help get the ball back for our offense. I’m gonna make a lot of plays. I want to help a team reach the Super Bowl.