Projecting BYU’s defensive depth chart when spring football practices wrapped up the past few seasons has not been an easy task, partly because departed defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki liked to get as many names, and positions, on the chart as possible.
For instance, when last year’s post-spring defensive depth chart was released at June’s football media day, it included 15 positions and 44 names. In some cases, it wasn’t a two-deep chart. It was a four-deep chart.
“It’s almost a night-and-day difference. This is going to be a really, really fun defense to play in.” — BYU linebacker Ben Bywater
Unique, hybrid-type roles like “Rover” and “Cinco” and even “Frodo” have dotted the list over the years.
Well, this year there’s a new sheriff in town — former Weber State head coach Jay Hill replaced Tuiaki last December — and the depth chart will presumably be less cluttered with guys who may never see the field.
And while Tuiaki’s defenses were incredibly multiple, marked by a 4-2-5, then a 4-3, then a 3-4 and often a 3-3-5, Hill’s defenses should be more simple and will almost always start with a four-man front, several defensive players have said this spring.
Whether the dominant scheme will be a 4-3-4 or a 4-2-5 is unclear, but expect as much of the latter as the former, especially if BYU remains thin at the linebacker positions.
“Well, I think the players handled the schemes very well,” Hill said after the 15th practice/scrimmage last week. “I think they handled some of the change-of-pace things we did in practice very well, and the depth chart solidified itself in a lot of places, but also in a lot of places we will have a long ways to go in terms of solidifying that depth chart.”
In other words, good luck making depth-chart projections — which we will set about doing here soon.
First, though, a quick reminder of what Hill and the other defensive coaches he brought in — Justin Ena, Kelly Poppinga and Sione Po’uha — are trying to do after the Cougars finished the 2022 season ranked No. 97 in scoring defense (29.46 points per game) and No. 94 in total defense (408.1 yards per game).
It was BYU’s worst defense, statistically, since head coach Kalani Sitake took over in 2016 and brought Tuiaki with him from Oregon State. In reality, BYU’s defense really started slipping in 2021, when it was 74th in total defense (388.8 ypg.) and 51st in scoring defense (24.6 ppg.), lacked a pass rush of any note, and struggled to stop the run and limit clock-eating drives.
By most accounts, Hill has brought a culture change from Ogden, where his defenses were known for their aggressive, attacking style. Sitake and the defensive players have raved about Hill’s energy, enthusiasm and motivational techniques.
“It’s almost a night-and-day difference,” said linebacker Ben Bywater, who has led BYU in tackles in each of the past two seasons. “This is going to be a really, really fun defense to play in.”
We will see when the Cougars’ first Big 12 season begins Sept. 2 against Sam Houston in Lavell Edwards Stadium.
In the meantime, here’s the Deseret News’ fourth annual stab at the post-spring defensive depth chart and special teams depth chart. Our guesses regarding the post-spring offensive depth chart were published earlier this week:
Will linebackers be a liability?
A year after star LBs Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar skipped spring camp with injuries — both moved on after the 2022 season, Pili to Tennessee and Wilgar to the pro ranks — the aforementioned Bywater and Max Tooley skipped this year, which new LBs coach Justin Ena said could be a blessing in disguise because the pack of young, inexperienced linebackers got valuable reps.
Sitake said Bywater and Tooley “will be ready” by the time fall camp rolls around, and Bywater confirmed that last Friday, saying he is only a few weeks away from returning from shoulder surgery.
“I will be rocking and rolling come August,” he said.
The linebackers room got a huge boost Tuesday when Utah State transfer AJ Vongphachanh, the Aggies’ leading tackler in 2022, signed with BYU. The grad transfer whose mother is from Mexico and father is from Laos will almost assuredly crack the starting lineup and give the Cougars a third experienced LB they so desperately need.
In Hill’s system, the middle linebacker is referred to as the Mac, while the outside backers are called the Rover and the Sam. Look for Bywater to start the season as the Mac, Tooley to primarily play the Rover and Vongphachanh to play the Sam (strong side).
With the projected starters and veteran Chaz Ah You out of the contact portions of spring camp, guys such as Isaiah Glasker, converted safety Ammon Hannemann and freshmen Maika Kaufusi and Ace Kaufusi got a lot of snaps.
More help could also be on the way; four-star recruit Siale Esera of nearby Timpview High could come in this summer and immediately push for playing time. He’s that good, coaches say.
“I am not worried (about linebacker depth) at all. We have a lot of guys. The young guys look good, too, (with) high ceilings,” Bywater said. “And we just added AJ who is going to be crucial and fundamental to our success. So I am excited.”
Wanted: A more dominant defensive line
The Cougars were 98th against the run last fall, giving up 173.8 yards per game on the ground. That’s not good.
They were 130th out of 131 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks, with just 15 in 13 games. Only Colorado (nine sacks in 12 games) had fewer per game.
That inability to develop a pass rush, wreak havoc on opposing offenses and consistently get off the field on third down eventually cost Tuiaki his job.
So what’s next?
The Cougars brought in a couple of defensive linemen from Boise State — nose tackle Jackson Cravens and defensive end Isaiah “Zay” Bagnah — who should be able to break into the starting lineup in Hill’s 4-3 scheme, particularly the pass-rush specialist Bagnah, who followed Poppinga to Provo.
Bagnah, 6-4, 235, said he and junior Tyler Batty have been the starting defensive ends in the scrimmages. Redshirt freshman Aisea Moa, junior Blake Mangelson, redshirt freshman Bodie Schoonover, redshirt sophomore Michael Daley and Weber State transfer Logan Lutui could also be in the mix.
“I don’t know if it is real fair to single a lot of guys out,” Hill said when asked which guys solidified starting spots in spring camp. “But I think a few stood out. Tyler Batty had a great spring. … Naisa Mahe, I think did a great job.”
Mahe, a sixth-year senior, is battling with junior Caden Haws, Cravens, junior John Nelson and redshirt sophomores Josh Larsen and Joshua Singh for a starting spot on the D-line, although new D-line coach Po’uha has said there will be plenty of rotating and finishing is more important than starting.
“You develop every guy in your group in spring,” said Po’uha, who coached defensive tackles at Utah until 2021. “I coach every guy as if he is the starter. … You don’t want to segment your coaching.”
Kudos for the cornerbacks
There is a reason cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford was retained by Hill after all the other defensive coaches were let go. The former BYU cornerback has developed depth at the position he oversees, and is also a respected recruiter.
Kaleb Hayes and D’Angelo Mandell were key parts of the cornerbacks room the past few seasons, but they’ve moved on. In their place are junior Jakob Robinson, hero of the New Mexico Bowl win, and newcomers such as junior college transfer Jayden Dunlap and Weber State transfer Eddie Heckard.
Look for Heckard to move into a starting role right away, teaming with Robinson to give the Cougars a pair of playmakers at corner. Redshirt junior Mory Bamba, redshirt freshman Evan Johnson, freshman Marcus McKenzie and senior Jacob Boren add depth.
Senior George Udo, who has played linebacker, safety, nickel and corner in his BYU career, hit the transfer portal the final week of spring camp.
“I honestly think we will be straight (at cornerback),” Robinson said. “We got Jayden and Evan. They both have been making a lot of plays. Evan was a freshman this last year, but he has gotten a ton better making picks and stuff. We should be good.”
Safeties should be solid
The Cougars should be set on the back line of their defense, especially if free safety Malik Moore stays healthy and returns to form after missing the last two-thirds of the 2022 season with a fractured finger.
Moore graduated last spring, but chose to return for a sixth season and play at 100% to increase his chances of playing in the NFL.
“I am not old,” he said. “I am still young. I graduated (high school) at 17, so why not stay for another year and get a better opportunity?”
Sophomore Micah Harper began his BYU career as a cornerback, but will be in his second year as a strong safety and could be the best defender on the team. Harper missed the last few practices of spring camp with a brace on his right knee, but should be fine, Hill said.
“So he had an injection that is just going to help him,” Hill said. “He had some tendinitis and stuff going on in the knee. He should be back and running here in the next week or so.”
Sophomore Talan Alfrey moved into the starting lineup last year when Moore went down, and could push the aforementioned for a starting role. Freshman returned missionary Raider Damuni, a prized recruit in 2021, could also get some playing time, along with sophomore Ethan Slade, redshirt freshman Chika Ebunoha and walk-on Crew Wakley.
Sophomore Dean Jones hit the transfer portal the latter half of spring camp.
Special teams is only half-special
Junior punter Ryan Rehkow is a field-flipping weapon for the Cougars, and has been the past three seasons. The Cougars have absolutely no concerns there.
It’s a different story with the other guys who use their legs to kick the football. Putting it kindly, they struggled in spring camp as BYU went about replacing all-time leading scorer Jake Oldroyd.
“The spot is definitely open,” Sitake said after Boise State transfer Will Ferrin, Oldroyd backup Justen Smith and walk-on Matthias Dunn combined to go 1 for 7 on field goal attempts in the final few moments of 2023 spring camp. “We will approach it like that.”
Sitake excused the misses — kickers were also off-target the first practice of spring camp, held indoors — by saying it was windy the final day and kicking in front of teammates surrounding them (were they trying to hide them?) “causes a lot of stress on the kickers, and to have them cold and not do much (before kicking) in practice before that” resulted in some struggles.
“I mean, the last two weeks they had some great kicks. You guys didn’t see it all, but we did. It was great competition,” Sitake said. “I really don’t care if the kicks are going through right now. I am not trying to look pretty in practice.”
BYU’s projected defensive depth chart
Starter — Backup
DE 92 Tyler Batty (Jr.) — 93 Blake Mangelson (Jr.)
NT 95 Caden Haws (Jr.) — 91 Jackson Cravens (Sr.)
DT 62 Atunaisa Mahe (Sr.) — 94 John Nelson (Jr.)
DE 13 Isaiah Bagnah (Jr.) — 58 Aisea Moa (Fr.)
OLB 31 Max Tooley (Sr.) — 16 Isaiah Glasker (Fr.)
MLB 2 Ben Bywater (Jr.) — 54 Siale Esera (Fr.)
OLB 10 AJ Vongphachanh — 22 Ammon Hannemann (Jr.)
LC 5 Eddie Heckard (Sr.) — 29 Jayden Dunlap (Jr.)
RC 0 Jakob Robinson (Jr.) — 19 Mory Bamba (Jr.)
FS 12 Malik Moore (Sr.) — 25 Talan Alfrey (So.)
SS 1 Micah Harper (So.) — 33 Raider Damuni (Fr.)
BYU’s projected special teams depth chart
K 44 Will Ferrin (So.) or 37 Justen Smith (So.) or 97 Matthias Dunn (Fr.)
P 24 Ryan Rehkow (Jr.)
KR 7 Hinckley Ropati (Sr.)
PR 23 Hobbs Nyberg (Jr.)