BYU’s first Big 12 football season schedule has been released, the Cougars have wrapped up their 2023 signing class, and a national expert has weighed in on their returning production this fall.

“We’ve got a long way to go. Defensively speaking, no, we are not there yet.” — new BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill on Cougars’ readiness for Big 12

With spring camp just a couple weeks away — it begins on March 6 this year — and some coaches returning from some much-deserved post-signing day vacations, now seems as good of a time as any to step back and assess BYU’s readiness level for its venture into Power Five territory.

It is early, obviously, but BYU coaches did say on Feb. 1 at their signing day news conference that the 2023 roster is almost complete.

Can the Cougars, who went 8-5 last season with a spirited turnaround after October’s nightmare, compete favorably against the likes of TCU, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State right out of the gate?

Not if returning production is a great indicator.

ESPN’s Bill Connelly recently put out his annual look at the returning production for all 133 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and BYU checks in at No. 70 in the country.

Kansas, which will be the first Big 12 opponent on BYU’s 2023 schedule (Sept. 23 in Lawrence, Kansas) is at No. 2.

Rival Utah, which is not scheduled to play BYU this season, is at No. 16.

Obviously, the returning production rankings can change, but usually not for the better, as teams go through spring camp and a few more players seek greener pastures and hit the transfer portal. The next transfer portal window is May 1-15.

At this juncture of the transfer cycle, however, it would be a surprise if a significant producer in 2022 suddenly decides to move on — at BYU or any other school.

According to Connelly’s work, BYU returns 62% of its offensive production from 2022 and 65% of its defensive production. That puts the Cougars at No. 83 for returning offensive production and No. 61 for returning defensive production.

BYU is seventh among the 14 Big 12 teams in returning production.

That’s not optimal. But then again, maybe the metric isn’t a great way of predicting success the following year. 

Consider that in June 2022, BYU was tied for No. 1 in the country with South Florida in percentage of returning production, according to Connelly. BYU had 85% of its production back, but injuries to key players such as Jaren Hall, Puka Nacua, Gunner Romney, Max Tooley, Chaz Ah You, Malik Moore and Payton Wilgar at one point in the season or another diminished the on-field product.

BYU finished at No. 61 in Jeff Sagarin’s final college football ratings for the 2022 season, with the 66th most difficult schedule.

Coordinators weigh in

So some of the national experts aren’t high on BYU’s chances in its first season in a Power Five conference. But what about the coaches who will be responsible for molding this group into a contender? What do they think?

The Deseret News posed that question to third-year offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, new defensive coordinator Jay Hill and new special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga at the signing day news conference Feb. 1.

Roderick was the most optimistic, followed by Poppinga, and then Hill, which isn’t surprising considering the defense was widely considered the biggest weakness on last year’s team, resulting in the demotion and then resignation of seven-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.

Hill has some work to do

Asked whether BYU’s defense as presently constituted can hold its own in the Big 12, Hill replied that he and new assistants Sione Po’uha and Justin Ena have some work to do.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Hill said. “Defensively speaking, no, we are not there yet.”

Top additions from the transfer portal on that side of the ball include defensive tackle Jackson Cravens (Boise State), defensive end Isaiah “Zay” Bagnah (Boise State), defensive tackle Wyatt Dawe (Southern Utah) and defensive back Eddie Heckard (Weber State).

Key losses include defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally (Tennessee), defensive end Logan Fano (Utah) and linebackers Tate Romney (Arizona State) and Keenan Pili (Tennessee).

“Based on the film that I have seen, we need to continue to develop guys better — which is always the case in January and February,” Hill said. “We have to develop guys that are currently here. We got to continue to look for guys to add to the roster. That doesn’t mean that we don’t love the guys that we currently have. But we are always looking to improve, and that will always be the case no matter what year you ask that question of me.”

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Upgrades are still needed at linebacker, where returning stalwarts Max Tooley and Ben Bywater will need some help due to the departures of Pili, Wilgar and Pepe Tanuvasa (graduation).

Asked what the pressing needs are entering spring camp, Hill was less definitive.

“I think it is both. 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 (from the portal),” he said. “And then the 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.

“So the rest of the guys we are looking at right now are those guys, the guys that fit the mold of Power Five guys that can compete in the Big 12.”

Roderick believes Cougs’ roster almost ready

One thing is certain when analyzing BYU’s offensive prospects for 2023: Quarterback was going to be a big position of need, with Hall entering the NFL draft and inexperienced backup Jacob Conover transferring to Arizona State, possibly to be the Sun Devils’ fourth-string QB.

Roderick solved that problem almost immediately, getting veteran QB Kedon Slovis from Pitt and luring top junior college quarterback Jake Retzlaff from the juco ranks.

UNLV running back Aidan Robbins and Utah offensive lineman Paul Maile are also key additions.

“You are never going to say ‘we have arrived, we are ready,’” Roderick said. “But, I have a lot of confidence that we are going to go into this conference and play well on offense.”

Roderick also said the Cougars “have some scholarships still available on offense” and will continue to recruit difference-makers throughout the spring.

“Recruiting (difference-makers) is never going to end, and so, I hate to say we are ready. It just sounds like we (are satisfied),” he continued. “But we are excited about this challenge and we have a lot of confidence that we are going to go into this league and be competitive.”

True freshmen rarely make instant impacts at BYU, particularly in the skill positions. But the addition of LJ Martin, a running back from El Paso, Texas, could change that.

With Robbins being the assumed RB1 this fall, look for Martin to push returnees Hinckley Ropati, Jackson McChesney and Miles Davis for playing time.

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Martin “was committed to Stanford forever, and then with the coaching change and what happened at Stanford, he showed some interest in us,” Roderick said. “And it probably didn’t hurt that we ran the ball pretty well in that last game against (Stanford), and he was aware of that, and sort of aware of what we have done on offense the last couple of years with our running backs, our run game.”

A special specialist returns, but Cougs need a new kicker

New special teams coordinator Poppinga, having played for and coached at BYU before stints at Virginia and Boise State, knows that Ed Lamb established some fairly strong special teams units at BYU before taking the head coaching job at Northern Colorado in early December.

Lamb was particularly proud of his punt coverage and kick coverage teams.

But there are some pressing needs in 2023, particularly at kicker to replace Jake Oldroyd, and at kick returner, a position that has been just OK for the Cougars the past few years.

“I would say, just talking special teams-wise, we still gotta find a dynamic returner. I think that is always a key, especially playing at the high level,” Poppinga said.

Converted baseball player Hobbs Nyberg handled kickoff and punt returns last year, and registered nine punt returns for 115 yards (12.8 per return) and 17 kickoff returns for 388 yards (22.8 per return).

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Oldroyd was 9 of 14 on field goal tries, recovering nicely after some midseason failures. One possibility for his replacement is Will Ferrin, a Davis High product who transferred from Boise State.

“We need to find a guy in our kick game that will be able to change the game in one play. We will be evaluating that through spring ball,” Popping said. “We need a kicker that is consistent and puts the ball through the uprights and (need) to find someone over these six months who can do that.”

Ryan Rehkow has been a solid punter for the Cougars the past three years, and will return in 2023 with sky-high expectations to continue his run as one of the best punters in the country. His career punting average is 46.8 yards per punt.

“I feel very confident in our punter, and very confident in the (long) snappers. I think we got a roster full of guys that can run and tackle and block and that is what you have to do on special teams to be competitive,” Poppinga said. “We have just a couple of spots here and there to fill, but I feel like we will get there by the time we get to August.”

Fans in the student section hold up a BYU banner during a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Oct. 15, 2022.
Fans in the student section hold up a BYU banner during a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News
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