‘Right on track’: Is BYU’s restructured defense ready for the most difficult schedule in school history?
Jay Hill provides an update on his rebuilding project as preseason training camp concludes in Provo
In his seven seasons as BYU’s defensive coordinator from 2016 to 2022, Ilaisa Tuiaki was often asked at the conclusion of preseason training camp if anything was keeping him up at night, and his reply was almost always the same.
“I know we are trending in the right direction just with expectation, how we want to run to the football, the tenacity that we are playing with. And we have become a much better tackling football team through camp.” — BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill
The laid back former mixed martial arts fighter would often say nope, adding that he “sleeps like a baby.” Kinda like some of his opponents back in the day, when he delivered knockout blows in low-level MMA matches using the moniker “Ogre 6.”
That’s why it was somewhat refreshing earlier this week to hear new BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill admit that, frankly, there are a lot of things keeping him awake at night as he goes about reconstructing a BYU defense that did some serious backsliding in 2022, leading to Tuiaki’s dismissal.
“Big 12 offenses keep me up, just making sure that we put our players in the best positions to be successful,” Hill told reporters Tuesday via Zoom before the Cougars’ final fall camp practice. “And then just everything about defense — being able to stop the run consistently.
“Just formulating plans and schemes that fit our personnel is going to be critical,” Hill continued. “But that’s what I love. That’s my responsibility and the other coaches’ responsibility — to put our players in schemes where they can be successful.”
With another preseason camp in the books, the Cougars took a break from football-related activities Wednesday and floated down the Provo River on tubes, a traditional team-bonding exercise. They turned their attention on Thursday to the Sept. 2 opener against Sam Houston, which is another reason Hill is burning the midnight candle.
“Well, Week 1 is weird because we got a new offensive coordinator (to prepare for),” Hill said. “There have been some staff changes at Sam Houston. So just trying to figure out what they are going to do, and what we are preparing for, that keeps me up right now, just making sure we know what that looks like.”
Overall, Hill said the defense improved from spring ball until now, in terms of getting familiarized with the new schemes and plays he has installed. By most accounts, the defense held its own against the offense in last Saturday’s scrimmage at the stadium, after the offense got the upper hand in the first scrimmage.
“I know the coaches are way more comfortable with who the players are and what they are all about,” Hill said. “The depth chart is shaping up.”
Linebacker AJ Vongphachanh, who was brought in from Utah State to improve the Cougars’ rush defense, among other reasons, said camp was marked by steady progress after a slow start.
“I definitely think we made improvements from the previous (scrimmage),” he said Saturday. “There are still some things we need to clean up, including myself. Things like communicating as a whole and making sure we are on the same page.”
Hill didn’t get as specific regarding the defensive depth chart as offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick did Tuesday when talking about the offensive depth chart, but it is fairly apparent that four transfers could earn starting roles: Vongphachanh, defensive tackle Jackson Cravens (Boise State), defensive end Isaiah Bagnah (Boise State) and cornerback Eddie Heckard (Weber State).
“I wouldn’t say anything is ever set in stone because you might get in a first game and all of a sudden a guy who was going to get 10 reps is playing great and ends up getting 40 and 50 and ends up being a full-time starter,” Hill said. “I think the depth chart is always a work in progress, but it is much more solidified than it was at the start of camp.
“And I know we are trending in the right direction just with expectation, how we want to run to the football, the tenacity that we are playing with,” he continued. “And we have become a much better tackling football team through camp.”
Hill said all three projected starting linebackers — Vongphachanh and returning starters Max Tooley and Ben Bywater — are good tacklers and that “this defense fits their skillsets perfectly.”
As far as backup linebackers, the names that have popped up the most throughout camp are Isaiah Glasker, Ace Kaufusi, Fisher Jackson and Chaz Ah You — who was an outstanding player several years ago before injuries took their toll.
“We have some good young players coming up through the program that deserve to play, but you also have to earn your stripes,” Hill said.
Head coach Kalani Sitake said he has concerns about “everything” as fall camp ends, but that’s not unusual.
“I even make up stuff to just be concerned about,” Sitake said. “I want to be overprepared going into the season, and luckily the coaches are the same way and the players are also doing that. So we feel really comfortable with where we are at, but let’s find ways to get more uncomfortable so we can grow and get better.”
BYU’s defense last year was known for massive substitutions from play to play — hockey-style substitutions where it was common to see five or six players or more shuttled on and off the field. Those days are gone, Hill said.
“The D-line will rotate a little bit more than the other position groups, just to keep those guys fresh and make sure we have pass rushers in the game when we get to third down,” Hill said. “The linebackers will rotate a little bit less than the D-line. And then the secondary doesn’t rotate much at all.”
Along with the arrivals from Boise State (Cravens and Bagnah), returning veterans Tyler Batty and Atunaisa Mahe should round out the defensive line’s starting four. But guys like Caden Haws, John Nelson, Blake Mangelson and Aisea Moa should be in the rotation as well.
“We are heading in the right direction,” Hill said. “We are trending where we need to get.”
In the secondary, Hill said Weber State transfers Eddie Heckard and Kam Garrett have joined returner Jakob Robinson to give the cornerbacks position stability.
“All three are playing at a high level,” he said. “Mory Bamba is right there with them.”
He added that freshman Marcus McKenzie “is going to be a phenomenal player, maybe as good as anybody who has played corner here, and I know that speaks volumes.”
Junior college transfer Jayden Dunlap and returners Caleb Christensen and Evan Johnson are also two-deep possibilities, maybe at nickel.
The strong safety position is in flux, after Micah Harper sustained a season-ending knee injury the first scrimmage of camp. It is not the same knee that was injured in 2021, athletic director Tom Holmoe said Wednesday in his Education Week address.
Sophomore Talan Alfrey, a part-time starter last year, could also be out for awhile with a shoulder issue.
“I think we are right on track,” Hill said. “I don’t think we are were we need to be, but we are getting better.”