PROVO — It’s been six long seasons since BYU’s Michael Alisa lined up at outside linebacker.
But this fall camp, he’s back, and it’s almost as if the Cougar senior never left.
Alisa’s collegiate journey includes an LDS mission, a switch to running back, nearly 800 yards rushing, and a couple of season-ending injuries.
Now, he’s come full circle, returning to the position where he began his career — as a true freshman in 2008 — at linebacker.
“I kind of wish I’d stayed here and continued to master the art of an outside linebacker,” he said. “I think I would have been way further ahead of where I am right now and having a lot more fun. I’m having fun now, I just wish I had more experience.”
With projected starter Bronson Kaufusi sidelined with a hamstring injury during fall camp, Alisa has taken advantage of the opportunity to showcase his abilities.
"He has made a lot of plays already, rushing the passer, in coverage, chasing the football,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “He's hungrier, and I think maybe in a better place personally than he might have been for a long time. He has been a really pleasant surprise."
The outside linebacker position at BYU has been glamorized thanks to the play of former Cougars like Kyle Van Noy, David Nixon and Bryan Kehl in recent years. This season, BYU boasts Kaufusi and Alani Fua.
Returning to the defensive side of the ball was a little intimidating, at first.
“It was like a big, almost overwhelming task to tackle, knowing that I’m going to this new position,” Alisa said. “I know that I want to get on the field and contribute as much as I can. There are some great outside linebackers in front of me. I haven’t played this position in six years. So I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, looking at the grand scheme of things. But when I break it down, day by day, then it’s manageable. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
After playing in 12 games at linebacker in 2008, Alisa returned from his mission to Puerto Rico for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was given the chance to fulfill a childhood dream — playing running back for the Cougars.
He ran for 776 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 175 carries from 2011-2013, although his 2012 campaign ended early due to a broken arm, and in 2013, he suffered a season-ending groin injury in late September.
“I really enjoyed my time at running back. Part of me needed to get that out of my system, being able to hold the ball under my arms,” Alisa said. “It was a dream of mine, to be able to score touchdowns for BYU. I was lucky enough to get that for a little while and taste that. I had a lot of fun playing running back. But now, I feel like I’m where I belong, where I have more natural instinct, and more experience.”
Prior to the start of fall camp, BYU coaches approached Alisa and asked if he was needed at running back — perhaps because of the one-game suspension of starter Jamaal Williams for the season opener at UConn — would he be willing to return to the offense?
Alisa seriously considered the offer, and talked extensively with outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga and running backs coach Mark Atuaia.
“Ultimately, I decided to stay at outside linebacker,” Alisa said. “I haven’t looked back. It’s absolutely the right decision. I think the coaches are beginning to see that as well.”
As a senior, Alisa is completely focused on doing whatever he can to help his team succeed.
“Right now in my career, I may have lost a step with the groin injury, and the hernia,” Alisa said. “I guess the younger me wanted the glory, the bright lights, the touchdowns, the cannon. Now I realize my only goal is to help out. I see that there is a big opportunity on defense to help out. I also recognize my natural talents are geared toward outside linebacker rather than running back. It’s definitely a better fit for my career right now. Being older, I was wise enough to see that, and humble enough to listen to those around me.”
On the first day of fall camp, while going against the offense, Alisa had to change his defensive assignment after he noticed two wide receivers lined up on one side. Alisa made the right read, and ended up making the play — as if he had been doing it for the last six years.
“That’s the rush I’ve been missing on defense,” Alisa said. “Day 1, it felt right.”