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BYU football spring camp preview: Cougars enter Big 12 with lots of questions on defense

New defensive coordinator Jay Hill outlines objectives for spring camp, which will be conducted without key LBs Bywater and Tooley

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BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill watches players during BYU spring camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility.

Jay Hill, BYU associate head coach, defensive coordinator and safeties coach, watches players practice during opening day of BYU spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo, on Monday, March 6, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After three spring football camp practices in Provo, new BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill isn’t ready yet to fully discuss and evaluate the level of talent he inherited from outgoing DC Ilaisa Tuiaki.

“I mean, I really love the defensive staff. I have been open and honest about that. I love these guys. I think it is a great staff. I think we got an opportunity to be really good here.” — new BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

Hill, the former Weber State head coach, told reporters the first day of camp to check back with him in a couple of weeks on that.

But Hill is already fairly certain on one aspect of the defensive roster.

“I like the overall buy-in right now,” he said. “I think they have bought into us as a new staff, bought into the way we are coaching and with some changes that we have done in the weight room, I think they are buying into that as well.”

Hill and head coach Kalani Sitake brought in Sione Po’uha as defensive tackles coach, Justin Ena as linebackers coach and Kelly Poppinga as defensive ends coach. He retained cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford from the previous staff. Poppinga is also special teams coordinator.

Defensive analysts include Vince Feula, Randy Coy Jr., Jan Jorgensen and Gavin Fowler.

“The talent level is going to continue to improve. The cream will rise to the top as we continue to go through spring,” Hill said. “I will be able to answer (the talent level question) a lot better after 10, 12 practices.”

Hill said last Monday the key objectives for the defensive coaches will be to solidify a depth chart and teach the new scheme, which is quite a bit different than what Tuiaki ran for seven years from 2016-2022.

“Obviously the players learning the new scheme is going to be critical,” Hill said. “We have to accomplish mastery of the new scheme by the time spring is over.”

What is that new scheme?

It will mostly be a 4-3 front, with a heavy dose of pressure, a lot of man-press coverage on the outside from the cornerbacks and an occasional mix of five defensive backs to give it a 4-2-5 look.

BYU football

BYU football key dates


March 23: Coaches clinic for high school coaches with former Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo
March 24: BYU’s Pro Day
March 31: Spring game or scimmage
March 31: Second annual BYU Alumni Game
April 15: Final spring practice

“I think a lot of it depends on what the offenses are doing,” Hill said. “If they are going to spread us out and play in lighter personnel groups with four wide receivers, or three wide receivers, we will probably have five DBs in the game in those situations.

“But if they are going to play with two tight ends, or a tight end and a fullback, you will almost always see three linebackers in there,” he continued.

Returning starting defensive end Tyler Batty, who had two sacks and four quarterback hurries in 2022, said that learning Hill’s scheme is going to take some time, but he and his teammates are “on board” because of the opportunities it presents to play more aggressively. Batty was BYU’s fifth leading tackler last year, with 52.

“I am just excited for the opportunities it is going to bring, absolutely on the edge, with just a little bit different philosophy,” Batty said. “They have talked about it. We are going to get after it. I like to play aggressively, and the coaches like to call it aggressively, so I am really excited for that aspect.”

Sitake echoed Hill’s sentiments that identifying players who can compete and contribute in 2023, and get them familiar with the new scheme, are the two main objectives for the defense. The unit’s third-leading tackler (Keenan Pili) and leader in pass breakups (Gabe Jeudy-Lally) both transferred to Tennessee. Other key defenders moving on include linebacker Payton Wilgar, defensive end/linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa, cornerback Kaleb Hayes and defensive linemen Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Alden Tofa and Lorenzo Fauatea.

Linebacker Josh Wilson is retiring from football.

“I think we know the returning guys that are big players and (who will) give us production,” Sitake said. “It is just (about) competing for positions and maybe solidifying spots. And that is in every position right now.”

Sitake said “quite a bit” of the new defensive scheme was installed the past two months since Hill was hired on Dec. 7.

“We did it in the classroom. I think it is a matter of putting it on the field now, with the pads on,” he said. “So I think Jay and (his staff) will have the whole defense installed by the time we are done with all 15 practices.”

That day will be April 14. The spring scrimmage and alumni game is scheduled for March 31, then the Cougars will take the following week off from practicing and will resume practices on April 12.

An article looking at the offensive questions was posted last week. Here are some other questions surrounding the defense in spring camp:

Which defensive players will miss spring camp?

New linebackers coach Ena told the Deseret News last month that redshirt junior Ben Bywater and redshirt senior Max Tooley would miss spring camp after having had surgeries last year. Bywater led the Cougars with 98 tackles last fall and was the defensive MVP of the New Mexico Bowl; Tooley was the fourth-leading tackler with 57 takedowns and had three interceptions.

Hill said “most of the other guys are at least going right now, but not everyone is 100%.” 

Former Woods Cross standout Josh Larsen played in four games last year before being sidelined with an injury, but is participating in spring camp, a good sign for a defensive line unit needing every healthy body it can get.

How involved will Sitake be with the defense?

After taking over the defensive play-calling duties from Tuiaki midway through the 2022 season, Sitake appears willing to allow Hill free rein with the group.

Hill’s scheme and way of doing things “are very familiar to what I am used to,” Sitake said the first day of spring camp. “He is doing it exactly how I would do it if I was running the defense — so, high energy, discipline and we are focused on playing our base defense first and seeing what else we can mix up with it. But I think he is utilizing the talent and the personnel the right way, putting guys in the right spots. And it is just a matter of them competing.”

Hill said the alignment in philosophies “has been phenomenal so far” and is one of the reasons he was attracted to the job.

“I mean, I really love the defensive staff. I have been open and honest about that,” Hill said. “I love these guys. I think it is a great staff. I think we got an opportunity to be really good here.”

Sitake said the offense obviously enters camp ahead of the defense, due to the continuity on the staff on offense and its familiarity with its personnel. Defensive coaches are still learning a lot about their guys, Sitake said.

“Focus is getting the right personnel in the right spots, and I think we will get there,” he said.

Are the Cougars thin and inexperienced at linebacker?

Outside of the aforementioned Bywater and Tooley, the Cougars don’t have a lot of experience at linebacker. That could be a problem.

Oft-injured redshirt senior Chaz Ah You is back and playing linebacker full time, so that should help. Junior Fisher Jackson is now listed as an LB, after having gotten some time playing defensive line last year.

Coaches were excited about walk-on Tavita Gagnier last year, but he sustained an injury early in the 2022 season and is no longer with the team.

After the first day, Hill said redshirt freshman Isaiah Glasker and true freshmen Ace Kaufusi and Maika Kaufusi stood out. Maika is the younger brother of former BYU LBs Isaiah and Jackson Kaufusi.

“It is going to be a major competition right now to see who else can continue to rise to the top,’ Hill said. “… It is going to be a big battle to see who can continue to step forward.”

Are defensive backs ready for the speed of the Big 12?

If the first day of camp was a sign of things to come, Weber State transfer Eddie Heckard will have a great first and only year at BYU. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound FCS All-American looks the part of a legitimate Power Five cornerback.

He should team with junior Jakob Robinson, who made the game-winning stop in the New Mexico Bowl, to give the Cougars a solid cornerbacks tandem.

“Eddie Heckard is going to be a good player in this defense. The ones who have been around him know it. He is tough. He has played a lot of football. He has played a lot of college football,” said Hill, who coached Heckard in Ogden. “He is also trying to earn the confidence and trust of the other players and the other coaches. That is going to be a critical part for him moving forward.”

At safety, the Cougars look fairly set with returning starters Malik Moore, Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey solid there if they can stay healthy. Former safeties Ammon Hanneman (linebacker) and George Udo (cornerback) have switched positions.

“I wouldn’t say there is one position group that is way behind or way ahead (on defense),” Hill said. “They all gotta continue to get better.”

Does Hill have the right answers?

By all accounts, the new defensive coordinator is just what the program, and a defense that seemed to have lost its edge the past few seasons, needed. Hills brings a passion and excitement for football, and a strong desire to recruit fanatically, that this defense didn’t have before.

“I am not afraid to get excited and geeked up and chest bump a player, but also I will be the first one to get on their butt a little bit and rip them when I need to,” Hill said of his coaching style. “And they know that. I think if you love your players, and they know that, you can be hard on them and at the same time celebrate with them.”

The change at practice is already evident. Poppinga also brings a different energy level; this defensive staff might not be as analytical as the past staff, but it is certainly more lively. Time will tell.

“We are all on the same page when it comes to our expectations for our players,” Sitake said.

Hill is still commuting daily from Ogden. His two youngest children want to finish the school year there.

“The commute is kicking my butt right now. … But hopefully we find a house soon down here (in Provo),” Hill said.

He said going from purple to blue has been “exciting” and believes change can be fun.

“I have really grown to love this place in a short period of time, and the more I am here and the more I see what BYU can offer, the more excited I am thinking about what the future can hold,” Hill said.

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BYU defensive tackle coach Sione Po’uha reacts during spring football practice at the Indoor Practice Facility in Provo on March 10, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News