They’re on the comeback road.

And BYU’s defense will be far better with linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili.

The Cougars struggled without these tacklers, plus Chaz Ah You, who missed a chunk of the season. Statistically, BYU’s defense finished the 2021 season ranked just behind Oregon and Oregon State and just ahead of Miami, Oklahoma, and Utah State at No. 74 in total defense.

For Wilgar — considered the top defender on the team for most of the season — it’s been an intense road of recovery after undergoing shoulder surgery the second week of November following the Idaho State game.

“I really wanted to play against USC in the Coliseum and I was looking forward to it,” said Wilgar. “But it kept popping out and I decided it was time. It was in the best interest of the team and for me to get it fixed.”

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Over time as a young athlete, Wilgar said his labrum slowly tore down. “They gave me a little diagram of my labrum and from like the 12 o’clock all the way around to 11 o’clock, it was 90% torn and it was popping out about every practice and every game. I decided to start getting it fixed early so I could recover. “

That first surgery on Wilgar was Nov. 16. He and Pili (ACL) are sitting out spring football.

He is eight weeks out from his most recent surgery and in four weeks he will be cleared for full out sprinting. From there he expects it will be another four weeks until he is ready to go full out — plenty of time to be back for fall camp.

“I’ll be ready,” he declared on Monday after BYU’s first practice. 

Freshman Ben Bywater led BYU’s defense in total tackles last year with 102, followed by sophomore Max Tooley with 68. 

The Cougars linebacker corps was a relatively young group the past two seasons. Both Wilgar and Pili will be juniors. Ah You is a senior.

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) slides down with Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Keenan Pili (41) moving in as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) slides down with Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Keenan Pili (41) moving in as BYU and Utah play an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Pili suffered an ACL injury in the Cougars’ win over Arizona State last September and missed the rest of the season, though he’s on target to return for fall camp. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A former walk-on, Wilgar had 56 tackles in 10 games and Pili had 31 in just three games last season. They both played as freshmen in 2019. Wilgar tied for second nationally in interceptions for linebackers with three his freshman year. He had 57 tackles that season for a top-10 defense nationally in scoring and total defense.

What could BYU’s defense have been if Wilgar and Pili had played the entire season?  

“You know, we all wonder that,” said Wilgar. “It was fun playing with Keenan. He is a great player and makes it a lot easier on everyone else. But we will build on the experiences we had and apply it for next season.”

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Wilgar liked the play of Bywater and Tooley and said Jackson Kaufusi and Josh Wilson are stepping up and will be fun to watch. He looks out at the practice field and says BYU has about 30 linebackers out for spring practice.

That number is a little high of course, but he was making a point — that group is a full room and it will be hard to get everyone repetitions in spring practice sessions.

A count of the revised spring roster shows there are 20 players listed as linebackers. They include Ah You, Pili, Wilgar, Tooley, Kaufusi, Bywater, Jacob Bosco, Teo Dawson, Cade Hoke, Isaac Matua, Kade Pupunu, Viliami Tausinga, Michael Daley, Hama Tuione, Truman Andrus, Andrus Bronson, Jackson Frank and Jacob Olsen.

That’s half a bus full.

“It’s good to have a lot of guys that bring a lot of energy and effort because it keeps all the veterans on their toes and keeps them going,” said Wilgar. “For the defense in general I’m excited. We won’t lose really anyone from last year, we’ve got everyone coming back. We have guys banged up a little bit but they’ll be healthy for the fall. So I’m excited to build off what we did last year.”

For Wilgar, he’ll watch, learn, and help where he can but he also has another important milestone coming this summer.  His wife Christine is pregnant and will deliver in July. Six days later his brother’s wife will also deliver, adding to his former Cougar Dana Wilgar’s grandchildren count.

One of the biggest stories of spring is how BYU’s defense will progress from where it was struggling to stop the run against Baylor, Boise State and UAB late in the season and pressure QBs.

Wilgar can’t wait to get back in the fray.