It is fairly easy to identify what hampered the BYU Cougars last year, what kept them from posting a perfect season and getting to their stated goal of a New Year’s Six bowl game.

In two of the three games that BYU lost — at Baylor and to UAB in the Independence Bowl — the Cougars were pushed around in the trenches, particularly their defensive line.

Simply put, they struggled to stop the run. Injuries to top players such as Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar certainly played a factor.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for coach Kalani Sitake to identify that perceived weakness when the Cougars started 2022 spring camp earlier this week. After talking about how defensive linemen such as Josh Larsen and Caden Haws got bigger and stronger in the offseason, Sitake was asked if there was an emphasis on that because they gave up 223 yards on the ground to the Blazers and 303 to the Bears.

“They know there are a lot of people questioning them, and that’s OK. I am not going to lie to them. They need to step up and stuff the run and get some sacks, and then we will be really good as a team.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake on the defense struggling to stop the run last year

“Probably,” he said, sounding slightly annoyed. “Just keep egging them on, guys, telling them how they are not very good. Just keep doing that.”

Whatever works.

Clearly, though, Sitake’s mild concession shows it is at least a talking point in spring camp. Defensive end Tyler Batty acknowledged it as well.

“We are known for tough, physical play,” Batty said. “We are trying to get back to that. … Keep the knife sharp. There are a lot of young guys that need development, and a lot of old guys that just need to hone their craft.”

Maybe the media’s criticisms will provide motivation, Sitake surmised. Every major contributor from BYU’s defensive line in 2021 is back, with the exception of graduate Uriah Leiataua, who is going to give pro football a shot.

“They will listen to you guys more than to me sometimes,” Sitake said. “They know there are a lot of people questioning them, and that’s OK. I am not going to lie to them. They need to step up and stuff the run and get some sacks, and then we will be really good as a team.”

The Cougars conducted their third practice of camp on Thursday. In the media-viewing portion of practice, defensive backs such as Isaiah Herron and Micah Harper made big plays.

Linebacker Ben Bywater spoke to reporters after practice and said the pieces are in place for the defense to be stout in 2022.

“Obviously if guys want to transfer in, we are going to welcome them and they are going to be a part of our family, but I know we can win with the guys we have in the locker room, the guys we have right now,” said Bywater, now wearing No. 2. He was 33 last year.

The Cougars lost only one mainstay from their standout offensive line, center James Empey, so there is going to be some good competition when the ones go against the ones in camp.

“The entire defensive line wants to prove something,” Sitake said. “They get to go against a really good O-line every day. That should make them a better group. The fact that they got in the weight room and got stronger shows that our guys have a different mindset than I have seen in years past.”

Although they finished 51st in scoring defense (24.6 points per game) and 74th in total defense (388.8 yards per game), the Cougars were mediocre on that side of the ball.

What does Sitake want to see in 2022?

“Just get more disruption and more big plays on defense. That’s it. I have been asking for that for a long time. That’s the expectation that I have,” he said. “It is not rocket science.”

BYU finished 73rd in rushing defense, allowing 4.34 yards per carry, and 156.8 yards per game. The Cougars gave up 24 rushing touchdowns.

Batty said the defensive line room “is really young, in general, because there are some guys that haven’t seen much playing time that have been here for a little bit.”

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Batty, Haws, Gabe Summers, Atunaisa Mahe, Lorenzo Fauatea, converted linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa, Earl Tuioti-Mariner and Alden Tofa have the most experience, although guys like Mahe, Fauatea and Tofa have battled injuries throughout their careers.

“With the returning starters that we have, and their playing experience, it makes it a little bit easier to get guys up to speed,” Sitake said. “We are further ahead than we were last year. … We can just focus on the little details and intricacies of our assignments. 

“Now we are just worrying about competition and who is going to win the spots, because there are a lot of really good players in every position group,” he continued. “There are a lot of good position battles going on.”

Returned missionary Logan Fano and prized recruit Aisea Moa, the Weber High star who graduated early and is already enrolled in classes, might be immediately called on to bolster the pass rush. Larsen, Alex Muti, Kade Pupunu, Fisher Jackson, Blake Mangelson, Josh Singh and John Nelson are also among the 23 defensive linemen on the spring roster.