Former BYU football standout Kelly Poppinga, now the Cougars’ special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach, was also on the BYU coaching staff from 2011-15 under head coach Bronco Mendenhall and remembers how they “tried to spin the independence thing” back in those days on the recruiting trail.

“The guys see that (Big 12 schedule) and they are fired up…. Those guys are fired up to potentially be a part of something like this. It is a complete game-changer in my opinion. Yeah, it is something we obviously will have going forward.” — BYU special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga

Poppinga noted Wednesday in a National Signing Day press briefing to discuss the latest additions to BYU’s 2023 football recruiting class that he’s thrilled to no longer have to use that pitch, because the Cougars are joining the Big 12 this fall.

“Just being out on the road in December and January (after he was hired in early December), for me it was a way different reception than what I was getting seven years ago when we were kind of in the middle of being independent,” Poppinga said. “Everyone wants to play Power Five football — bottom line. … So being in a big-time conference is huge.”

As an example of how they are using their new Power Five status in recruiting, Poppinga said one of the first things BYU did Tuesday after the 2023 Big 12 schedule was released was send it out to all their recruits.

“Week in and week out, the teams that we are going to be playing (are good),” said Poppinga, who was on Mendenhall’s staff at Virginia from 2016-21 and got a taste of Power Five recruiting there. “The guys see that and they are fired up. … Those guys are fired up to potentially be a part of something like this. It is a complete game-changer in my opinion. Yeah, it is something we obviously will have going forward.”

New defensive coordinator Jay Hill seconded Poppinga’s assessment, saying BYU coaches are getting in doors that were previously not opened to them on the recruiting front.

“Getting back on the recruiting trail in January was big,” Hill said. “And the reality is BYU has a great name out there right now. We can get in on some big-time guys, and I look forward to the recruiting battles of the future.”

Those battles for top-flight players have been happening since it was announced in September 2021 that BYU was Big 12-bound, head coach Kalani Sitake said, and on Tuesday he had some positive proof. One of the three prospects added to the 2023 signing class the first Wednesday in February is four-star running back LJ Martin, a 6-2, 205-pound four-year starter from Canutillo High in El Paso, Texas.

“He’s a beast,” Sitake said on BYUtv’s “BYU Sports Nation.” “The guy breaks big-time runs, breaks tackles, makes cuts and he’s physical, active and he had great hips and great vision. He’s got some speed, too. He’s a big play waiting to happen. We have a rookie (Tyler Allgeier) out there playing for Atlanta who had a similar style.”

Martin actually signed with BYU during December’s early signing period, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday, but the ESPN Top 300 recruit who rushed for 2,137 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior wanted to wait to have it announced until the traditional signing day so he could celebrate it with his community and school Wednesday morning in a ceremony at Canutillo.

Martin, who finished with 6,150 rushing yards and 71 total TDs, originally committed to Texas Tech, then Stanford. But after Stanford coach David Shaw resigned an hour after BYU beat the Cardinal 35-26 last November, Martin reopened his recruitment and started considering BYU.

“We have managed to keep it a secret the whole time,” Roderick said. “He asked us to do that. He wanted to wait. He is a really awesome kid. He said he really felt indebted to the community and the school, all the people in his school.

“A kid signing with a Power Five program is a big deal there and he wanted it to be a special event today where he thanked and included everybody in the community and school,” Roderick continued. “So we have been hanging on to that for awhile. Obviously I would have loved to have announced it a month ago.”

Other Signing Day additions

Also Wednesday, BYU announced the signing of Snow College defensive lineman David Latu, a 6-4, 295-pound Bountiful resident who prepped at Bingham High. Latu is a 2022 NJCAA second team All-American who was a three-star prospect out of high school and served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Tonga and San Jose, California.

The Cougars also signed Timpview High’s Motekiai Mo’unga, a 6-3, 250-pound defensive lineman who acknowledged that he has been committed to BYU for quite some time, but had a little fun with people when he announced a top four on social media a while ago and BYU wasn’t on his list.

The additions moved BYU’s team ranking to No. 66 in the nation in the composite rankings. In the service’s 2023 overall team rankings, which includes transfers, BYU was No. 53 nationally as of midday Wednesday.

Defense had some holes

Hill said Latu and Mo’unga, along with some preferred walk-ons that BYU is not allowed to announce, per NCAA rules, should help fill some holes he noticed when he left Weber State for BYU on Dec. 7.

“I felt like we needed to really shore up the interior of our defensive line, so that is where we did take a couple of players,” Hill said. “And then reality is we are never going to turn down a big-time guy. I don’t care if we already have too many scholarships used at that spot — we are never going to turn down that guy (who can make a difference).”

Of the 13 high school players BYU signed in December, three are listed as defensive linemen: David Tangilanu, Saimone Davis and Talitu’i Pututau. A good portion of those 13 signees will depart on church missions before enrolling. Ethan Thomason, a highly recruited offensive lineman from Fort Collins, Colorado, is already serving.

Quarterback Kedon Slovis the prize of transfer portal haul

Wednesday marked the first time coaches were available to publicly talk about eight players they’ve added from the transfer portal and two junior college additions: quarterback Jake Retzlaff (Riverside City College) and cornerback Jayden Dunlap (Cerritos College).

Of course, the biggest prize from the portal is Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis, the quarterback who began his college career at USC.

“When we had him on a visit, (we discovered) that his football IQ is ridiculous,” Sitake said. “I mean, he is so smart. He wants to be a part of this offense. He and (Roderick) had a great connection. He has got a lot of arm talent.”

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With Slovis, Retzlaff and Springville High’s Ryder Burton already enrolled, BYU’s quarterbacks room is suddenly as crowded as it has ever been. Later Wednesday at a Cougar Club luncheon, Roderick said New Mexico Bowl MVP Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters has moved to running back and is excited about the change.

“We want to make sure we have a win-now mentality at quarterback, and we felt like going after a player like Kedon Slovis fit that,” Roderick said. “He has been one of the best quarterbacks in the country the last few years in college football. We felt like we needed to get at least one guy who is a proven guy at this level, and has played at a high level.”

Roderick said Retzlaff also brings a lot of playing experience.

“In my opinion (Retzlaff was) the best quarterback in junior college football the past two years,” he said.

Still looking for more difference-makers

Other highly rated transfers (see accompanying chart below) include running back Aidan Robbins (Louisville/UNLV), defensive end Isaiah Bagnah (Boise State) and offensive lineman Paul Maile (Utah).

“I think the roster is starting to form now and am really feeling excited about the depth and experience and talent that we have at all of our positions,” Sitake said.

He said “recruiting never ends” and BYU is always looking to add more difference-makers to the mix. Sitake declined to put a specific number on how many open scholarships he has left, saying only that attrition is common in college football, particularly after spring camp ends and players have sit-down discussions with coaches regarding their roles in the program.

“We are going to have a full roster (this fall),” he said. “So if we have to go to the transfer portal to add some, then we will do that.”

The next portal window opens May 1 and stays open until May 15. Roderick did say there are “some scholarships still available on offense” and seconded Sitake’s statement that recruiting never really ends.

Bumper crop of preferred walk-ons

Regarding the difference Big 12 membership has meant in recruiting, Sitake said an example is the quality of preferred walk-ons that BYU has been able to get.

“It is a talented group, probably one of the more talented groups we have ever had as preferred walk-ons,” he said. “Us being able to recruit these young men (is due to Big 12), and for them to turn down scholarships at other schools to come here with the promise of competing and earning a scholarship (is significant).”

The list of PWOs, more than a dozen strong, includes former Corner Canyon quarterback Cole Hagen, SUU defensive back Dylan Flowers (cousin to current BYU receiver Kody Epps), and SUU defensive lineman Wyatt Dawe.

What about returned missionaries?

Also Wednesday, BYU announced the 13 athletes from previous signing classes (mostly returned missionaries) who will be joining the program soon, if they haven’t already. The list includes former Timpview DB Raider Damuni, former American Fork receiver Devin Downing, former Tooele running back Nukuleve Helu and Marcus McKenzie, a speedster from St. George’s Pine View High. 

Of the 13 “previous signees” announced Wednesday, 12 are enrolled in school and will participate in spring camp, which begins March 6 and will end April 15. Former Lone Peak star John Henry Daley, a defensive end/linebacker, is still on his mission.

BYU’s February Class of 2023 Football Signees (Feb. 1, 2023)

  • David Latu, defensive lineman, 6-4, 295 Bountiful, Utah (Snow College/Bingham High)
  • LJ Martin, running back, 6-2, 205 El Paso, Texas (Canutillo High)
  • Mo’unga Motekiai, defensive lineman, 6-3, 250, Provo, Utah (Timpview High)

BYU’s December Class of 2023 Football Signees (Dec. 21, 2022)

  • Jackson Bowers, tight end, 6-5, 225 Mesa, Arizona (Mountain View High)
  • Owen Borg, linebacker, 6-2, 190 Draper, Utah (Corner Canyon High)
  • Ryder Burton, quarterback, 6-2, 180 Springville, Utah (Springville High)
  • Pierson Watson, linebacker, 6-3, 210 Flagstaff, Arizona (Coconino High)
  • David Tangilanu, defensive line, 6-4, 255 Menlo Park, California (Menlo-Atherton)
  • Josiah Phillips, wide receiver, 6-4, 190 Chatsworth, California (Sierra Canyon)
  • Miles Hall, athlete, 6-2, 195 Salt Lake City, Utah (Skyline High School)
  • Siale Esera, defensive end, 6-3, 250 Provo, Utah (Timpview High School)
  • Saimone Davis, tight end, 6-5, 220 Colleyville, Texas (Colleyville Heritate High)
  • Matthew Fredrick, tight end, 6-5, 230 Salt Lake City, Utah (East High)
  • Pokaiaua Haunga, athlete, 5-11, 200 Provo, Utah (Timpview High)
  • Talitu’i Pututau, defensive line, 6-5, 255 Salt Lake City, Utah (West High)
  • Ethan Thomason, offensive line, 6-8, 315 Fort Collins, (Rocky Mountain High)

BYU’s Junior College Signees (2023)

  • Jayden Dunlap, cornerback, 6-2, 180 Norwalk, California (Cerritos College)
  • Jake Retzlaff, QB, 6-2, 200, Corona, California (Riverside City College)

BYU’s Signees from Transfer Portal (2023)

  • Aidan Robbins, running back, 6-2, 220 Louisville, Kentucky (Louisville/UNLV)
  • Isaiah “Zay” Bagnah, defensive line 6-4, 225 Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada (Boise State)
  • Kedon Slovis, quarterback, 6-3, 215 Scottsdale, Arizona (USC/Pittsburgh)
  • Eddie Heckard, defensive back 5-10, 190 Las Vegas, Nevada (Weber State)
  • Jackson Cravens, defensive lineman, 6-2, 305 Provo, Utah (Boise State)
  • Weylin Lapuaho, offensive lineman, 6-4, 310 South Jordan, Utah (Utah State)
  • Ian Fitzgerald, offensive lineman, 6-5, 299 Hawthorn Woods, Illinois (Missouri State)
  • Paul Maile, offensive lineman, 6-2, 304 Salt Lake City, Utah (Utah)

BYU’s 2023 Incoming Players From Previous Signing Classes

  • Ty Burke, defensive back
  • Kaden Chidester, offensive lineman
  • Raider Damuni, defensive back
  • John Henry Daley, defensive lineman
  • Devin Downing, wide receiver
  • Koa Eldredge, wide receiver
  • Zoom Esplin, defensive lineman
  • Jake Griffin, offensive lineman
  • Nukuluve Helu, running back
  • Ace Kaufusi, linebacker
  • Maika Kaufusi, linebacker
  • Marcus McKenzie, defensive back/WR
  • Petey Tuipulotu, defensive back