Perhaps because people have a hard time pronouncing his last name, or identifying his ethnicity, or describing his exact position on the football field, new BYU linebacker AJ Vongphachanh has been called a lot of different names throughout his career.

“As soon as he went into the portal, he was a guy I knew I wanted just because I had seen him play so many times. He adds a really smart, intelligent, savvy football player to our group. So he’s a good addition to what we are doing.” — BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

BYU’s defensive coaches are calling the Utah State transfer a godsend.

“We’re so thankful he’s here,” new BYU linebackers coach Justin Ena said Tuesday. “He’s really going to help us.”

Said new BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill last week, when the Cougars opened preseason training camp: “We love him. He was one of the guys when he went into the portal (we contacted first). I loved him when he was a freshman, when he was a sophomore, at Utah State.

“As soon as he went into the portal, he was a guy I knew I wanted just because I had seen him play so many times,” Hill continued. “He adds a really smart, intelligent, savvy football player to our group. So he’s a good addition to what we are doing.”

Vongphachanh (pronounced: Vong-puh-chawn) has been running with the first-team defense in the few minutes media members have been allowed to view fall camp practices. The only other LBs on the squad with tons of experience in actual games — Ben Bywater and Max Tooley — are being brought back slowly from offseason surgeries that forced them to miss spring camp last March and April.

Safety-turned-linebacker Isaiah Glasker and oft-injured super senior Chaz Ah You are also in the mix, said Ena, who is largely responsible for getting Vongphachanh to BYU. Ena said there are “four or five guys who are top dogs” and in the running to be starting LBs, and “AJ is in that group, for sure.”

Others pushing to make the two-deep at the Sam, Rover and Mac linebacker spots are Ace Kaufusi, safety-turned-LB Ammon Hannemann, freshman Siale Esera and Oregon transfer Harrison Taggart.

“Our depth chart is a living, breathing organism,” Ena said. “Our (linebacker) depth chart is going to keep moving and evolving.”

Ena said Bywater and Tooley “are ready to go” health-wise, while Ah You “needs to get a little more healthy and fly around a bit more” in camp to prove he can be a contributor like he was years ago.

Hill said Taggart, the former Corner Canyon star, has already displayed some raw ability.

“The speed and athleticism that he was known for in high school and what made him such a high-caliber recruit, that showed up (the first day),” Hill said. “That (linebacker) group is deep. You are going to have to be a really good player to get on the field this year, in that group.”

How Vongphachanh got to BYU

A native of Pasco, Washington, Vongphachanh spent four seasons at Utah State, and was the Aggies’ leading tackler in 2022. In 40 games and 33 career starts, he racked up 223 tackles and seven sacks in Logan. 

Why did he leave such a seemingly favorable situation and decide to spend his “super senior” season at one of USU’s biggest rivals, BYU?

“Ever since I have been there, we have always had a lot of turnover, from freshman season to last year,” he said. “Last year, a lot of our initial starters ended up leaving as well.”

Vongphachanh said two-year USU defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda leaving to be the Cleveland Browns’ safeties coach was “kind of” the last straw.

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“I just felt like if I had to learn a new scheme, it might as well be somewhere else for my last year, anyway,” Vongphachanh said.

Enter BYU.

Ena has known Vongphachanh since he was 16 years old and a star player at Chiawana High in Pasco. When Ena was at the University of Utah, he wanted to get Vongphachanh there, but he was “too much of a tweaner” for Utah’s system and never offered him a spot on Kyle Whittingham’s roster.

“When I got the job at Utah State, he was one guy I targeted,” Ena said. “I wanted to make sure I got him there.”

So when Vongphachanh hit the portal a couple months after Ena was hired at BYU, the phone call was made quickly.

“BYU reached out the day I went into the portal,” Vongphachanh said. “And from there it heated up. I have a strong relationship with coach Ena. … That was kind of the connection for getting me here to BYU. I wanted to make the transition as seamless as possible, and having coach Ena here certainly helped.”

Of course, Vongphachanh was very familiar with BYU’s personnel because the Aggies played the Cougars three times while he was at USU, losing 42-14 in 2019, 34-20 in 2021, and 38-26 in 2022 in Provo.

“If you would have told me last year after the (BYU-USU) game that I would be here this year, I definitely would not have believed you,” he said. “None of my years there would I have believed you. We took BYU as a huge game for us — especially for the in-state guys. It is crazy that is has all come full circle now.”

A proud Laotian Mexican American

Vongphachanh is also quite humble. After he said his father, Chith, is half-Thai and half-Laotian (Chith was raised in Savannakhet, Laos) and his mother, Mireya, is Mexican, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound LB was asked if he’s the best Laotian Mexican player in college football.

“I don’t know,” he said, chuckling. “There could be another one out there. I don’t want to throw that one out there. Gotta stay humble.”

Said Ena, who might be a bit biased, when asked the same question: “Best one I have ever seen, that’s for sure.”

Vongphachanh is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU, but he said he will have no problems adjusting to the school’s culture and honor code.

“I don’t do much outside of football and school anyways,” he said. “I was familiar with the LDS community up there, and obviously with the LDS players on the team. When I came on my visit here, I only felt love and had that same familiarity as in Logan. My teammates here are awesome. No problems there.”

Vonghachanh was Academic All-Mountain West all four years at USU and graduated with a degree in international business. He’s not sure yet what he will study at BYU.

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“I might do something easy so I can focus my entire time on football,” he said.

He said his linebacker role models are guys like former Cougar Kyle Van Noy and former Aggie Bobby Wagner; BYU is having him learn all three positions (Sam, Rover and Mac), but primarily the first two.

“I am kinda bouncing all over,” he said.

Just like people who try to say his last name.

Alabama offensive lineman Darrian Dalcourt blocks Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Vongphachanh transferred to BYU for his senior season. | Vasha Hunt, Associated Press
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