Ben Bywater and Max Tooley don’t like to sit still. They like to move around. That’s how they approach life and how they play linebacker, and after waiting and watching throughout spring practice, they are about to get the green light to get going again.

“These next two months are crucial for me in just dialing in with shoulder rehab, nutrition and film study. Just learning the defense, talking with coaches and seeing where I can get better.” — BYU linebacker Max Tooley

Bywater is mending from shoulder surgery to repair his left labrum muscle. Tooley had the same procedure to repair his right labrum. While Tooley expects to be medically cleared in June, Bywater is only days away.

“I’m running right now and doing everything at full speed except for some range of motion stuff, like bench press and pullups,” Bywater said. “Other than that, I’m doing everything I can to be prepared for August.”

Bywater is BYU’s ironman. Even with nicks and bruises, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior has started all 26 games of his Cougars career and led the team in tackles as a freshman (98) and sophomore (102).

“I feel like I’m consistent,” he said. “I go out week after week and produce.”

In addition to taking ball carriers to the ground, Bywater lifted BYU with three interceptions last season, including a 76-yard pick-six to beat SMU in the New Mexico Bowl. He won’t truly test his repaired shoulder until he takes a hit in fall camp.

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“It’s one of those things that you really need to prepare for, so you aren’t second guessing, and you are not favoring it,” said the former Olympus High star. “I’m gonna work my butt off for when August comes around and we are going to be locked and loaded.”

Tooley, who shined at Bountiful High, missed seven games last year but still finished fourth in tackles (57) and tied Bywater with three interceptions, with two returned for touchdowns against South Florida and Utah State.

“These next two months are crucial for me in just dialing in with shoulder rehab, nutrition and film study,” Tooley said. “Just learning the defense, talking with coaches and seeing where I can get better.”

Getting an education

Standing and watching Jay Hill install his new defense for BYU’s debut in the Big 12 wasn’t easy, but it might prove to be invaluable.

“I learned a lot as far as the new concepts,” Bywater said. “These new coaches are intense. They are big-time ballers. It’s been hard for us to sit out and see the young guys go in there and play.”

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater tackles Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. | John Locher, Associated Press

Hill wants to play on attack with a variety of formations and blitzes.

“I literally learned something different every day,” Tooley said. “Coach (Justin) Ena and coach Hill have done a great job helping us so we can come back swinging in August.”

Both Bywater and Tooley are under the watchful eye of Ena, the new linebackers coach and a former BYU star.

“I think they understand this defense,” Ena said. “You hope they picked things up by watching, learning and asking questions while the other guys were out there. They are smart football players. They will be just fine.”

The Breakfast Club

Ena has summer goals for both linebackers, with staying healthy at the top of the list.

“We need to make sure their shoulders are 100% before fall camp and make sure their weight is exactly where they need to be,” Ena said. “Max needs to gain and get a little more armor on his body. Ben needs to lean up a little bit more, but I think we are in a good spot.”

Ena runs a special program for those needing an extra boost, like 6-foot-2 Tooley, who came into the new year just under 200 pounds after surgery. He is up to 222, but Ena wants him at 235 by fall camp.

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“If you are an underweight guy, you have to come in at 7:30 a.m. before class,” Tooley said. “He calls it the ‘Breakfast Club.’”

It is there that chef Ena serves up protein shakes and the kind of food that can create the girth needed to withstand the blows of a football season.

“We are all just trying to gain weight,” Tooley said. “I’m trying to convince him to get some gourmet stuff on the menu.”

Adding AJ

Ena knows what works. He is a two-time All-Mountain West linebacker at BYU (1997-2001). He finished his time in Provo with 266 tackles, 23 tackles-for-loss and forced six fumbles. As an undrafted free agent, Ena fought his way into the NFL and played in 51 games.

When he speaks, the linebackers in the room listen and when he adds a player like 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior AJ Vongphachanh from the transfer portal, the guys take notice.

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“I feel like we have a group of older guys who can lead,” Ena said. “We haven’t seen them do much with this defense, but I know the leadership, toughness and the brand of football they bring. They are good football players. I think these younger guys are gong to emulate these older guys and I think we have a bright future in front of us.”

Vongphachanh gives BYU a third Big 12-ready linebacker with a possibility of adding another one before the transfer portal closes on April 30.

“I’ve watched his game. I’m excited to play with him,” Bywater said. “He’s only going to make us better.”

“We are really excited,” Tooley said. “I talked to AJ a bunch when he was here. He knows what he’s doing. He’s going to be a good addition to the group.”

Utah State Aggies linebacker AJ Vongphachanh is now at BYU.
Utah State Aggies linebacker AJ Vongphachanh celebrates a missed BYU field goal in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Vongphachanh will be wearing Cougar blue this fall in Provo. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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