This BYU linebacker grew up in ‘Utes country,’ but now he faces an even bigger challenge
Olympus High product Ben Bywater will move into the starting mike linebacker spot after leading tackler Keenan Pili suffered a season-ending injury vs. Arizona State
Few players on the BYU football team, if any, were more overjoyed after the Cougars defeated the Utes 26-17 in the rivalry game on Sept. 11 than linebacker Ben Bywater.
Because the redshirt sophomore grew up in “Ute country,” as he calls it. And now he has bragging rights for a couple of years, after suffering through nine losses to BYU’s rival dating back to 2010.
Cougars on the air
South Florida (1-2)
At BYU (3-0)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM
“I was surrounded by Utah fans,” said Bywater, who starred for Olympus High in a couple of sports. “I wasn’t a Utah fan growing up. Both of my parents (Stephanie and David) graduated from BYU. It was definitely hard holding your ground.”
Bywater, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound rover who will move into injured captain Keenan Pili’s starting spot at mike, or middle, linebacker after Pili sustained a season-ending ACL tear in the 27-17 win over Arizona State, welcomed the rivalry banter and his role as a defender of the blue in red-stained Salt Lake City.
“All my neighbors, my bishopric growing up, were Ute fans,” he said. Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley “is in my stake. … There wasn’t much I could say, I didn’t have a lot of leverage against those guys.”
“So really, having that win against Utah two weeks ago was huge,” Bywater said. “That was exciting for me and my whole family, after years of (being) surrounded by Utah fans. At the end of the day, we are all friends. We love those guys. Great humans, obviously. That was good for us. I am excited and proud of the boys.”
Bywater is known as a weightlifting nut among his teammates, as he’s added pounds to what was a somewhat skinny frame when he returned from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Guatemala City, Guatemala. He said Tuesday in a Zoom meeting with reporters that he also likes to spend time in the outdoors hunting, camping and fishing, especially fly-fishing.
“I was surrounded by Utah fans. I wasn’t a Utah fan growing up. Both of my parents (Stephanie and David) graduated from BYU. It was definitely hard holding your ground.” — BYU linebacker and Olympus High product Ben Bywater
He also said he is up to the task of filling in for Pili, BYU’s leading tackler with 31 takedowns before leaving in the third quarter versus the Sun Devils.
“It is so tragic that Keenan went down with that injury,” Bywater said. “He is someone we all look up to in the linebacker room, and I think on the team in general. … Obviously you don’t wish that on anyone. All of our hearts go out to Keenan. We feel so sorry for him.”
Bywater has actually started all three of No. 15 BYU’s games, because fellow linebacker Max Tooley hasn’t been at full strength. He’s third on the team in tackles, with 18.
“I am prepared. I feel great. I have been training at that mike position since the beginning of August. It is nothing new to me and I feel like I got a good feel for the defense,” Bywater said. “I am excited. It should be super fun this Saturday (8:15 p.m MDT, ESPN2) going against South Florida.”
Tooley, tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 14 despite having played in only two games, said there “shouldn’t be much drop-off, really” with Bywater getting a bigger role and guys like Drew Jensen, Josh Wilson, Jackson Kaufusi and Morgan Pyper moving up the depth chart.
“We feel confident with the guys stepping in. We have some good linebackers, Ben especially. He has worked hard this offseason. He has gotten a lot bigger and a lot stronger.” — BYU linebacker Max Tooley
“We feel confident with the guys stepping in,” Tooley said. “We have some good linebackers, Ben especially. He has worked hard this offseason. He has gotten a lot bigger and a lot stronger.”
Bywater wasn’t heavily recruited out of Olympus, partly because a lacerated kidney robbed him of most of his junior season.
“BYU actually offered me off my rugby film,” he said.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki confirmed that account, saying that rugby film showed Bywater “was a tall athlete that could run,” which is what coaches are looking for in their linebackers.
“And then you are recruiting smart guys, and he is an intelligent person in the classroom and took care of his grades, and had aspirations and plans to serve a mission, which checked another box for us,” Tuiaki said. “We feel like we can develop them.”
Bywater’s development was slowed by an injury last year. He tore his posterior labrum around the third or fourth game of the season and decided to have season-ending surgery.
“I would just touch somebody, and my shoulder would fall out (of place),” he said. “I wasn’t playing my best. My 75% wasn’t better than the next guy’s 100%. So for me, it was a no brainer — ‘let’s get the surgery.’”
He returned in 2021 bigger and better than ever, he says, and coaches agree.
“We are going to have to dip into the depth because we want our players to be fresh and we want to play where everybody is clicking at 100% and Ben is one of the guys that is going to fill in that we feel really comfortable with,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We feel good about that whole entire group.”
Coincidentally, Pili had the same type of shoulder injury two years ago.
“Ben has had a very, very similar path to Keenan,” Tuiaki said. “Now we are going to need him to step up. He’s ready for the challenge. Keenan is going to be alongside him the whole way to help him out and coach him up and all those things. Ben certainly deserves to earn the right to step in and fill in for Keenan.”
Just like he earned bragging rights in the rivalry — by being prepared when the moment finally arrived.