Even before stepping on BYU’s campus for the first time as a member of the school’s football team, Boise State transfer Isaiah Bagnah began hearing about the Cougars’ struggles to get sacks the past few years.

BYU recorded only 1.15 sacks per game in 2022 en route to an 8-5 record, ahead of only Colorado (.75) in the entire Football Championship Subdivision. That ranked the Cougars 130th of 131 teams.

“There are a lot of LDS people in that community in Southern Alberta, so my friends and I all followed BYU and were big BYU fans. I’ve always known about BYU, always thought about playing here.” — new BYU defensive end Isaiah Bagnah

“I don’t know if I’m the savior they’ve been looking for, but I have definitely heard about the situation,” Bagnah said during the second-to-last week of spring camp. “The coaching staff has been very clear to me about why they wanted me, and what I can do to help the defense.”

New BYU special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach Kelly Poppinga, who also spent last season at Boise State, said Bagnah clearly fills a need for the Cougars.

“Super excited to have his versatility on the field to be able to rush the passer but also be able to drop into space and help us out in coverage,” Poppinga said when Bagnah signed a few months ago.

Midway through his fourth season at Boise State, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound defensive end announced he was entering the transfer portal just hours before the Broncos were to kick off against Colorado State on Oct. 29. After fielding offers from Montana, Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona and other schools, he signed with BYU on Dec. 21.

“I had some other schools that were interested in me, but none of them were as interesting for me as BYU,” he said.

There is a reason for that. Bagnah, who is referred to as “Zay” by his teammates and coaches, grew up in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, a member of the faith that sponsors BYU, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“There are a lot of LDS people in that community in Southern Alberta, so my friends and I all followed BYU and were big BYU fans,” Bagnah said. “I’ve always known about BYU, always thought about playing here.”

However, BYU coaches didn’t recruit Bagnah heavily in 2018 when he played for the Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, and he committed to Boise State in late November. Not coincidentally, he made his official campus visit to Boise in early November and watched the Broncos hold off BYU and Zach Wilson 21-16 on the blue turf of Albertsons Stadium.

The three-star prospect had offers from Tulane, UConn and Yale and interest from Virginia, Boston College, Oregon and UCLA.

But not BYU.

“BYU was looking at me and everything, but once it came down to it, I made my decision with Boise State and I kinda just stopped talking to other schools,” he said.

Bagnah redshirted in 2019 when BYU upset No. 23 BSU 28-25 in Provo, and appeared in six games, with two starts in the pandemic-altered 2020 season when the No. 9 Cougars crushed the No. 21 Broncos 51-17 on the blue.

In 2021, he made five tackles and forced a fumble as Boise State returned the favor with a 26-17 upset at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“I’m no stranger to the stadium or the program,” he said of his new home.

All told, Bagnah appeared in 20 games for Boise State and registered 10 sacks and 58 tackles. He had six sacks in his best season, 2021, second on the team behind Scott Matlock, who had seven.

Examining the Cougars’ 2023 post-spring defensive and special teams depth charts
Cougars’ post-spring offensive depth chart taking shape, gets boost with transfer portal additions

He’s now arguably the top pass rusher on BYU’s roster, along with perhaps fourth-year junior Tyler Batty, who has posted eight sacks in three seasons — but had just two last year. John Nelson, who is moving from defensive end to defensive tackle this season, led the team with three.

Suffice to say, expectations are high for the Canadian.

“I don’t feel any pressure other than from myself,” he said. “I just want to come out here and help the defense and get as many wins as we can. If that means me getting after the passer and changing it up a little bit for them, then shoot, let’s do it.”

Tennessee-Martin quarterback Dresser Winn delivers a pass as Boise State linebacker Isaiah Bagnah applies pressure Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. The former Bronco, who grew up a BYU football fan in Canada, will be playing for the Cougars this fall. | Steve Conner, Associated Press

BYU hasn’t had a single player record more than five sacks in a season since Corbin Kaufusi had 8.5 in 2018.

Bagnah said that Poppinga, who signed on with BYU on Dec. 7, was actually not the first BYU coach to contact him when he was officially in the portal. It was new defensive coordinator Jay Hill.

Why BYU?

“I wanted to display my talents on a big platform,” he said.

In Hill’s 4-3 scheme, the bigger defensive end will be called the Bull, while the other defensive end will be called the outside end, or OE. 

Bagnah, an OE, said his weight had dropped to 220 three months ago, but is now around 240, which is where he wants to be.

“The strength staff and nutrition people here are doing a great job with me,” he said. “We got Big Dan (Wilcox) up there in the weight room cooking up chicken and steaks every day for us, and all that stuff. I just try to pack as much protein on as I can.”

Wilcox is BYU’s director of football sports performance nutrition.

Bagnah said the last four months in Provo have shown him that the community is a lot like Boise in that people are kind and welcoming.

“So far, it has been sweet. It has been pretty good out here. It has been super welcoming, like the whole community and the school and everything,” he said. “Everybody has been helping out a lot, so I have been able to adjust pretty well. Everything just fit the puzzle.”

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Bagnah lives in a house with former Cougars Chris Jackson and Isaiah Herron and current BYU linebacker Isaiah Glasker.

Because that 2020 season doesn’t count against his eligibility due to the pandemic, Bagnah technically has two seasons of eligibility remaining, if he wants it.

Is he here for two?

“Honestly, right now all I am worried about is this season. Of course, there is an option of coming back for another season. Once that comes, I will deal with that,” he said. “Right now, I am just worried about competing and playing the best I can possibly play.”

BYU’s 14 additions from the transfer portal in 2023

  • Quarterback Kedon Slovis — Pitt/USC.
  • Defensive tackle Jackson Cravens — Boise State/Utah.
  • Running back Aidan Robbins — UNLV/Louisville.
  • Kicker Will Ferrin — Boise State.
  • Defensive end Isaiah “Zay” Bagnah — Boise State.
  • Defensive tackle Wyatt Dawe — Southern Utah.
  • Offensive lineman Weylin Lapuaho — Utah State.
  • Offensive lineman Ian Fitzgerald — Missouri State.
  • Defensive lineman Nu’u Sellesin — Weber State.
  • Offensive lineman Paul Maile — Utah.
  • Defensive back Eddie Heckard — Weber State.
  • Defensive back Crew Wakley — Utah State.
  • Linebacker AJ Vongphachanh — Utah State.
  • Offensive lineman Caleb Etienne — Oklahoma State.
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