There will be a lot of people watching at the New Mexico Bowl.

SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai will be watching how the BYU secondary shifts into formation. The Cougars defense will be watching how Mordecai runs through his pre-snap reads — and Jay Hill will be watching both.

BYU’s new defensive coordinator will be at the game working more as an evaluator for the future. The underclassmen hoping to lead the Cougars into the Big 12 next fall are on notice. In many aspects, the bowl game is a glorified audition.

“I look forward to seeing who plays with the correct effort that I’m looking for in the future — tenacity and toughness,” Hill said. “You can watch these guys in practice, but it’s different in the game.”

Mordecai leads an offense that averages 38.4 points per game, including the 77 they put on Big 12-bound Houston on Nov. 3. BYU is catching a break with SMU’s star receiver Rashee Rice opting out of the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Rice caught 96 passes for a school-record 1,355 yards and 10 touchdowns — more than double the receiving production of BYU star Puka Nacua.

Even with Rice out, Mordecai poses an incredible challenge for a defense depleted by injuries and staff changes.

New BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill meets with players for the first time after being named to his new post earlier this month. Hill is eager to see how the Cougars defense performs against SMU in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

“You’ve got to do things to confuse the quarterback. He’s got to see different looks,” Hill said. “You can’t just sit and drop-eight the whole game. Being able to play some man-to-man coverage, mixing some zones, mixing some pressures, mixing some drop-eight, we have to keep this guy on his toes so he can’t just grip it and rip it to where he knows he has a guy open.”

Building depth and trust

Hill inherits a depth issue at BYU as the Cougars prepare to join the Big 12. The program has had little trouble presenting a capable first string of roster players, but after that, it gets dicey.

Whether it’s the time it takes to develop returned missionaries or managing the growing impatience of players waiting for their turn — Hill knows it won’t be an easy fix, not so long as the pied piper of the transfer portal keeps promising more (NIL) money and playing time elsewhere.

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“The players have to believe in me, and I have to believe in them,” Hill said. “There is a trust that goes both ways. They have to trust me, and they have to want to stick around here knowing that this defense can provide them an opportunity of playing in the Big 12 and the NFL. That’s a big deal. If you are a backup, just bide your time because this will ultimately get you where you want to be, but I’ve got to earn that trust from them.”

First things first

Hill’s top defensive priority is to rebuild BYU’s front seven with a special emphasis on the defensive line.

“I’m used to watching BYU defenses that have those big, nasty guys up front, the big defensive linemen,” he said. “I believe we can always recruit those guys to BYU. We’ve got to get back to that — being stout in the front seven and being able to stop the run. We’ve got to get better in the defensive front.”

Big 12 offenses

As BYU patiently waits for the release of the 2023 Big 12 football schedule, Hill knows that no matter who is on it, the climb for the Cougars will be straight uphill.

So much of the Big 12 has been influenced by the late Mike Leach, where an emphasis on scoring points has trumped the premise of preventing them.

More on Jay Hill

You can see Dave McCann’s interview with Jay Hill on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on “BYU Sports Nation GameDay” on BYUtv.

“That’s gonna be a challenge, but it’s something I look forward to,” he said. “It’s not that different from what we’ve been doing. We’ve been going against great offensive coordinators. I’ve coached at this level before. I’ve been around the game. I look forward to it.”

Watch and wonder

Hill still has staff positions to fill, but Saturday at the New Mexico Bowl (5:30 p.m., ABC) his eyes will be on his guys while he ponders what the Cougars might look like when next September rolls around.     

“It’s a matter of how they play. I’ve always believed it’s much more about how you do it than what you do,” Hill said. “That’s what’s fun about this game for me is I get to watch what they are doing and how they are doing it.”

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at