Without a timely pick-six by Ben Bywater, BYU probably doesn’t win the New Mexico Bowl last December.

Without a couple of interception returns for touchdowns by Max Tooley, the Cougars probably don’t rout South Florida and Utah State last September.

“Well, some of those injuries could actually be a blessing in disguise, not having guys like Tooley and Bywater who have played a lot in the past. It has been a blessing in that a lot of the young backers are getting reps and there are more reps to go around that normally wouldn’t be there.” — BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

However, those two outstanding linebackers aren’t participating in practices and scrimmages during spring camp, both having had offseason surgeries so they will be fully prepared to play this fall.

Oft-injured defender Chaz Ah You, expected by some to be BYU’s third starting linebacker in 2023, is also missing spring camp to recover from various injuries.

That probably means new BYU linebackers coach Justin Ena has his work cut out for him, right?

If there is a position of weakness for this BYU football team entering the Big 12 this fall, a position where the Cougars are dangerously thin and inexperienced, it is at linebacker — even if Bywater, Tooley and Ah You return at full strength.

Even new defensive coordinator Jay Hill agrees with that assessment, but he’s not panicking — not yet, anyway. In fact, the former Weber State head coach sees a silver lining in the situation, brought on in part because 2022 starters Keenan Pili (Tennessee) and Payton Wilgar (pro football) moved on and a couple key backups last year — Josh Wilson and Tavita Gagnier — retired from football for medical reasons.

“Well, some of those injuries could actually be a blessing in disguise, not having guys like Tooley and Bywater who have played a lot in the past,” Hill said after last Friday’s spring scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium. “It has been a blessing in that a lot of the young backers are getting reps and there are more reps to go around that normally wouldn’t be there. So I see those guys progressing. I see them getting better.”

In the first half of the scrimmage, when ones and twos were going against ones and twos, freshman Ace Kaufusi, redshirt freshman Isaiah Glasker, converted safety Ammon Hannemann and freshman Maika Kaufusi saw the most reps.

BYU linebacker Isaiah Glasker works on his technique during practice at the Indoor Practice Facility in Provo. | BYU Photo

Redshirt freshman Logan Pili and converted defensive lineman Fisher Jackson also saw action.

“I am excited about bringing the veteran guys back with us come fall camp,” Hill concluded, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the youngsters.

Although it is rare for freshmen right out of high school to start at BYU, the Cougars’ linebacking corps could get a lift when Timpview High’s Siale Esera joins the team in late June. Esera, 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, was listed as a defensive end when he signed with BYU last December, but told the Deseret News he will probably start his career as a linebacker.

Other linebackers on BYU’s spring roster are freshmen Kyle Vassau, Lamese Patterson and Lucky Finau and redshirt freshmen Micah Wilson (Zach and Josh’s brother) and Kason Krebs.

Logan Pili appeared in three games last year and Jackson, 6-5, 230, posted 20 tackles, mostly as a linebacker after making the midseason switch from defensive line. Hanneman put on 20 pounds the last few months by consuming more than 7,000 calories a day, after starting in four games as a safety in 2022 and totaling 30 tackles.

BYU signed two linebackers as part of their 2023 recruiting class, Corner Canyon’s Owen Borg and Pierson Watson of Flagstaff, Arizona. But both future Cougars have been called to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Borg to Sweden and Watson to Argentina.

So Hill and Ena, who was San Diego State’s defensive line coach last year and has also been at Utah Tech, Eastern Washington, Utah State, Utah, Weber State and Southern Utah, have a blank canvas, of sorts, to mold the young linebackers into what they want.

“Coach Hill was looking for linebackers that are tough, that can attack the ball, that aren’t scared to hit people,” said Glasker, who at 6-5 and 220 has added additional weight to a rangy frame. “I feel right now with the guys that we have, it is a pretty good group.”

Glasker said the open tryout at linebacker, as it were, has created more motivation among the younger guys because spots on the two-deep are at stake.

“We are all starting to get the plays down and stuff like that,” he said midway through camp. “I feel like with the variety of guys we have here right now, we are going to be pretty good this year.”

Hill didn’t want to reveal his starting three linebackers if the season were to start today, but a safe guess would be Glasker and the Kaufusis — who are cousins. Maika Kaufusi, who prepped at Alta High, is the younger brother of former BYU LBs Jackson and Isaiah Kaufusi. Their cousin, Ace Kaufusi, prepped at Hawaii’s Kahuku High.

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater steps over Wyoming running back Dawaiian McNeely after a play at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU linebacker Ben Bywater steps over Wyoming running back Dawaiian McNeely after a play as BYU and Wyoming play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Bywater is recovering from surgery and sitting out spring camp and hopes to be good to go when the season starts. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

If Bywater and Tooley make it back successfully before the opener on Sept. 2 against Sam Houston, the third starting LB would probably be either Ah You or Glasker, who played receiver and free safety for Bingham High and was recruited to BYU as an athlete.

“As soon as I got here, the coaches thought it would be a good fit for me to play linebacker. I played flash last year, which is like an outside linebacker, but I was a little on the lighter side,” Glasker said. “This year I put on a little bit of weight, so it has been pretty good. They just decided they wanted me to play Sam (strong side linebacker).”

When Glasker arrived in Provo, he had an infection on his pelvis, which caused him to lose weight. After surgery, he was under 190 pounds. Last year, he was at 205 pounds, and now he’s close to 220, and still trying to gain more weight.

“Coach Ena has us come in at 6:30 every morning,” Glasker said. “We are drinking two protein shakes, and eating Uncrustables, every morning. Basically, they are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Bywater, who has led the team in tackles the past two seasons, totaling 215 in his career, said the new guys will be fine because they have “that dog in them” that fits into Hill’s aggressive style.

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“As a linebacker, you gotta go prove yourself every single day you step out there,” Bywater told Kyle Van Noy of BYUtv during the scrimmage. “And these new young guys, you gotta go show them, ‘hey, this is what got me here. If you think you are high and mighty and you stop doing that stuff, you are not going to be able to stack year after year.’”

So what about the transfer portal? Could the Cougars find linebacker help when the window opens in May?

Head coach Kalani Sitake has brushed off questions about which position the Cougars need help at, saying they are open to adding any player who can most help the team and is a good fit. 

“I feel like we are really good right now, but I guess I can’t turn down good help,” he said. “So whenever good players are available, and they fit our program, they fit the mission of our school and our church, and then we will see. We will look that way.

But we are not out there trying to force it to happen. We have really good players here that have done some really good things and developed really well.”

BYU linebacker Maika Kaufusi listens to position coach Justin Ena after the Cougars practice in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News