So, has Jay Hill fixed BYU’s defense yet?

If your parameters are aggression and disruption, yes. After six spring football practice sessions there is evidence Hill is making progress, but measuring how effective the Cougars’ defense will be in the Big 12 isn’t something anyone can do now or in training camp this fall while the team is playing against itself.

What we do know is during a shortened indoor situational practice last Saturday, the defense had moments where Aaron Roderick’s offense was disrupted and stopped. While the offense scored during some red-zone situational plays, the defense actually won on other situational plays, including some third-down sets.

A negative was that the weather forced this scrimmage indoors, limiting the team to both time and substance regarding tackling. If on the grass and as planned in LaVell Edwards Stadium, there would have been takedowns and tackling. When the scrimmage switched to indoors, BYU coaches are wary of tackling on the turf and are subject to the university’s event planning for the Indoor Practice Facility. 

That’s code for having to leave the facility early. And that probably wouldn’t happen at Oklahoma or Texas. BYU moved an afternoon scrimmage to 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the earliest scrimmage probably everyone on the roster and staff had experienced.

Back to Hill’s transformation efforts and the brief scrimmage, where his guys brought some heat.

Because this added aggression was effective at times against what BYU coaches are saying is one of the most athletic offensive lines they’d seen in some time. It’s a good thing, yes, even progress.

“I think today, even all week, was a big step forward for the defense,” said coach Kalani Sitake on BYUtv Monday. “Jay’s doing a great job with the defense. I’m seeing a lot of disruption out of the defense and that’s a compliment to what our offense is doing as well.”

Roderick was impressed. He welcomed what Hill is doing because it is great preparation for the linemen who are working to find the best combinations and establish chemistry and communication. 

It is even good for quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has a responsibility to help the linemen with calls and even get out of some plays if he deems they will not work during his pre-snap routine.  

Receiver Hobbs Nyberg said the defense won the day.

“I wish we could have actually scrimmaged (more) today,” Nyberg told the media after Saturday’s scrimmage. “It was more of a practice. But I think the defense got us today, if I am going to be honest. We didn’t look the sharpest on offense today.”

The Big 12 isn’t traditionally known for its defense, particularly pass defense. But it is known for explosive offenses. Last year Iowa State had the league’s best defense. But if you take a deep look at the statistics, throw out dominating performances against FBC or non-Power Five competition and focus on just Big 12 games, Texas had the top defense. League champion TCU was in the top third.

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For an in-depth breakdown of Big 12 defenses in 2022, a good start is here from a Texas-centered perspective.

Hill’s challenge is to first, stop teams from running the ball and controlling the clock. Second, he must find a way to put pressure on opposing QBs. Third, his coverages need to be effective, especially with man coverage. Finally, fundamental tackling and gap control and other basic defensive skills need polish.

By most accounts, from those who have witnessed practices at length, the defense is on track, and Hill and the coaches he brought in have been pleasantly surprised by BYU’s defensive talent this spring. 

Some of that includes a winter transfer portal of 11 transfers to the squad for spring. One of them is Weber State All-America corner Eddie Heckard.

Heckard told reporters he is excited to meet the Big 12 challenge and it is part of the reason he chose to transfer to BYU, following Hill to Provo.

“There are three quarterbacks in the Big 12 who threw for more than 3,000 yards. As a DB that’s what you want.”

Because he played for an FCS team last year, he said he thinks some opposing Big 12 teams might pick on him, viewing him as a freshman or rookie. He’s up to it.

Heckard declared for the NFL draft before he changed his mind and enrolled at BYU. A Las Vegas native, Heckard had 30 pass breakups at Weber State, second-most in school history, and added 218 career tackles, 13 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, six forced fumbles, and four sacks. He is a four-time All-Big Sky Conference honoree.

BYU’s cornerback coach Jernaro Gilford likes to shuffle playing time around with three or four cornerbacks and if Hill does what he plans with the defense, Heckard must be a big part of it.

Right now BYU’s defense is using a lot of four-man fronts as part of its base defense. But Hill is bringing blitz pressure from all segments of his alignments.

Roderick said his first-team offense was successful in the red zone, but needs to improve on goal-line and short-yardage situations as evidenced by last season’s performance. Both have improved this spring.

In a two-minute situational segment, however, the defense got the better of Roderick and Company. “They presented a lot of different fronts, multiple coverages and pressures,” said Roderick. 

And it caused the offense issues.

Hill told KSL radio his defense is based on what he learned at Utah and deployed at Weber State. He said it is complicated.

In 15 practices this spring, Hill is throwing the kitchen sink at BYU defenders. They’re drinking from a firehose.

Hill declared to the radio audience on the “Hans and Scotty G. Show,” “I would say it’s one of the more complicated (schemes) in college football. We have a lot and we do a lot of different things. We’ll play man, cover three, we’ll zone pressure with two high safeties, zone pressure with one high safety.”

He also has a drop-eight package.

Bet he said it with a smile.

Jay Hill, BYU associate head coach, defensive coordinator and safeties coach, talks to media at the end of opening day of BYU spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo, on Monday, March 6, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News