Justin Ena has a reputation. He’s an intense football coach. Nothing slides. Everybody is accountable.

Ena returned to BYU this winter after coaching at San Diego State. His years playing at BYU were during the final seasons of legendary LaVell Edwards (1997-2001). He previously coached at Utah, Utah State, Weber State, Utah Tech and SUU.

“Coach Ena is intense. He’ll get the most out of you. I’m excited. You need that out there at linebacker, someone to give you a spark, and get you going. Coach Ena has been at different places and coached NFL linebackers so he knows what it takes.” — BYU linebacker Ben Bywater

His job under new BYU new defensive coordinator Jay Hill is to implement an aggressive, attacking linebacker corps, train them to be zeroed in on gaps, and force offensive linemen to worry about what they’re doing in blocking schemes.

After years of playing bend-but-don’t-break defense, he and Hill have their work cut out for them, especially with veterans Max Tooley and Ben Bywater sidelined for rehabilitation from injuries and surgeries.

“We’re getting a lot of experience for some of our youthful backers,” said Ena. 

“I’m excited to see what Ace and Maika Kaufusi continue to do. In watching film from practices, I’d say this class has been a pleasant surprise how they move around, they are athletic and tall. Now we’re just trying to make sure we put it all together.”

Ena said what’s been thrown at BYU’s defenders so far needs to be digested and understood. “But we’re going to throw a lot more at them to decipher and know exactly what it takes to be successful. I’m excited.”

Players are being asked to not only master their positions but know what assignments other positions are expected to execute.

Head coach Kalani Sitake brought in Hill and the new defensive coaches to turn around a defense that had been declining, slipping to the bottom in the country in sacks, rush, scoring and pass defense. 

It got to the point in many games that opposing quarterbacks had enough time to literally stand like a statue without fear of pressure and pick BYU’s defense apart. This led to long drives, out-of-whack time of possession, and successful third- and fourth-down conversions.

In short, it didn’t work and will not work in the Big 12. 

Bywater, BYU’s leading tackler last season, likes what he’s seeing so far in five practice sessions. On Wednesday he spoke to reporters after practice.

“It’s playing downhill, that’s what it’s all about,” said the former Olympus High product.

“Coach Hill and Ena, that’s what they did with other defenses, especially at Utah and Weber State. It’s having your gap, attacking, different from what we did last year so it will be a change, I’m excited.”

Bywater said the days of having huge 260-pound linebackers are over. Linebackers are going to have to be able to run and cover sideline to sideline — so speed is emphasized,

“Coach Ena is intense. He’ll get the most out of you. I’m excited. You need that out there at linebacker, someone to give you a spark, and get you going. Coach Ena has been at different places and coached NFL linebackers so he knows what it takes.”

Bywater says he’s just trying to be a sponge and soak it all in.

“There are a lot of young bulls out here. He (Ena) is trying to get them acclimated to major college football, plus he’s teaching them the defense, so he has a lot on his plate.”

And one of Ena’s traits is to get after folks.

Bywater welcomes it.

“That’s what coaching is all about. We need that, someone to bring tough love. You want someone to hold you accountable.”

Bywater is impressed by both Ace and Maika Kaufusi, who are tall and lanky and can move.  Logan Pili and Isaiah Glasker are among the new faces being injected into the fray.

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Everyone is drinking from a firehose with the new defense right now, young and old.  “I’m right there with them. Some concepts, zone and man (coverage) transfer over, but the first few days my head was spinning,” admitted Bywater.

Ena said he is glad to be reunited with Hill and Sione Po’uha from his days at Utah and Weber State and he really likes what he’s seen working with former BYU, Virginia and Boise State defensive ends coach Kelly Poppinga.

“I like that we hold each other accountable,” said Ena.  

If his guys are lacking, he expects he will be told and challenged to make it better.

This is a peek inside the classroom of BYU’s new defense, where Hill and company are scratching to establish a foundation of all their goals in Year One.

Will it work?

Dunno after just two weeks.

September will reveal a ton about Jay Hill and this defense.

BYU linebackers coach Justin Ena, special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach Kelly Poppinga and defensive tackles coach Sione Po’uha, left to right, watch during spring football practice at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo on March 10, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News