One of the big questions facing BYU when the Cougars entered spring camp a month ago was whether they had upgraded their defensive line with some key offseason acquisitions from Boise State.

Through 12 practices, it appears that they have.

“I don’t think anybody is technically where we want them to be at this point, but we are getting better. I think coach (Sione) Po’uha and coach (Kelly) Poppinga have done a phenomenal job with the defensive line. They have gotten much better this spring. We are heading in the right direction but we all have a ways to go.” — BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

Take it from one of the guys who has been tasked with blocking former Broncos Isaiah “Zay” Bagnah and Jackson Cravens. Former five-star recruit Kingsley Suamataia, BYU’s starting left tackle in 2023 and a probable NFL draft pick in 2024, said the rivals up north sent plenty of firepower to Provo.

“Those guys are studs,” Suamataia said midway through camp. “They know what they are doing over there.”

Bagnah, 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, and Cravens, 6-2, 305, are battling for starting spots with returning starters Tyler Batty, Atunaisa Mahe, John Nelson and Caden Haws in new defensive coordinator Jay Hill’s 4-3-4 or 4-2-5 scheme.

Based on what they showed in the spring scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium on March 31, the Cougars will almost certainly have four defensive linemen on the field at all times in 2023, with veteran coaches Sione Po’uha and Kelly Poppinga having been brought in to direct that group.

Po’uha will primarily coach the defensive tackles, while Poppinga will oversee the defensive ends — often referred to as “edge rushers” in Hill’s system.

“I don’t think anybody is technically where we want them to be at this point, but we are getting better,” Hill said after the scrimmage in which the defense won the day, at least when the ones and twos were going against the offense’s ones and twos. “I think coach Po’uha and coach Poppinga have done a phenomenal job with the defensive line. They have gotten much better this spring. We are heading in the right direction but we all have a ways to go.”

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The Cougars return to camp this week for three more practices, after having taken last week off so coaches and support staff could enjoy spring break activities with their families. Players still had school, for the most part, however, so many stuck around and lifted weights and worked on conditioning.

BYU’s spring camp roster includes no fewer than 20 defensive linemen and is broken down from there into two subsets: 10 defensive ends and 10 defensive tackles.

Top defensive ends working to be in the two-deep include Bagnah, Batty, Logan Lutui, Blake Mangelson, Aisea Moa, Bodie Schoonover and Nelson, who mostly played tackle last year and registered 28 tackles and three sacks. Former Lone Peak star Michael Daley, a member of the scout team in 2022, adds depth to the group, as does freshman Zoom Esplin.

Batty and Moa made big plays in the scrimmage for the defense.

Competition to make the two-deep at defensive tackle is fierce, Haws said after the second week of camp. He said guys who can bring intensity and aggressiveness to the position will play the most.

“I think you guys have heard about it already, but it is a way more aggressive approach this year,” Haws said. “We are not two-gapping anymore, or things like that. It is way more gap sound. We get to fire off the ball and create some havoc. So, way different.”

The 6-2, 305-pound Cravens, who is the nephew of University of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, brings another big body to the interior. The two-time Academic All-Mountain West honoree recorded 70 tackles while playing for Boise State.

“Everybody is just doing their job and looking really good,” Haws said.

A redshirt junior, Haws is one of the strongest players on the team, along with senior Mahe, who had 13 tackles last season in returning from injury.

Other heavyweights looking to crack the depth chart at defensive tackle and/or nose tackle include sophomores Josh Larsen, Joshua Singh and Bruce Mitchell. 

Boise State defensive end Isaiah Bagnah looks to the sidelines during a timeout against Air Force on Oct. 16, 2021, in Boise, Idaho. The Cougars snagged Bagnah from the transfer portal. | Steve Conner, Associated Press

Asked what he wants to see from the defense this week, Hill said he’d like to see some playmakers, some difference-makers, step up and earn a spot on the traveling squad.

“We gotta continue to solidify the depth chart,” Hill said. “We gotta continue to find out who the playmakers are. There are three more really critical practices that we have left. There is still movement to be made in the depth chart.”

Coaches have not ruled out bringing in another defensive lineman from the transfer portal, although the need there doesn’t seem as critical as at linebacker. That’s especially true if Bagnah and Batty become the sack masters coaches believe they can be.

Batty said that process started long before spring camp started, as a new strength and conditioning staff put in lifts designed for each individual position.

“Yeah, they have changed some stuff up,” Batty said. “A lot of it just goes back to helping us be the best football players. For me, on the edge, that is explosiveness, strength, mobility. It has been a big emphasis there, and I am really excited about that.”

Batty has appeared in 28 games for BYU and made 108 tackles and eight career sacks; Bagnah made 59 tackles and 10 sacks during his career at BSU, including six sacks last year with Poppinga as his coach at that Mountain West school.

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“They are versatile, powerful guys that are versatile and can do a lot of different things,” Poppinga said. “They are not just pass rushers, but guys who are able to set the edge in the run game, and able to drop into coverage.

“And so I think we got three or four guys right now that can do all that, and then another three or four guys that gotta develop into doing that. But we are going in the right direction,” Poppinga continued.

Meanwhile, it is Po’uha’s charge to develop BYU into one of the better run-stopping defenses in the Big 12, just as he helped Utah do in the Pac-12 from 2018-21.

“Coach Po’uha is great. We really love him. He played in the league for a long time (eight years),” Haws said. “It is fun to learn from a guy who played our position and did it for a long time and really well.

“He is a great teacher, helps us understand the technique, fundamentals, the scheme. So it has been great. He’s been a great addition to our room.”

Boise State defensive tackle Jackson Cravens runs on the field during game against Central Florida on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Cravens is a nephew of Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and recorded 70 tackles while playing for the Broncos. This season he will be lacing ‘em up for BYU. | Phelan M. Ebenhack, Associated Press