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Linebacker depth will be tested Friday against Cincinnati with probable loss of another starter

Cougars will almost certainly be without leading tackler Ben Bywater against fellow Big 12 newcomer Cincinnati at LaVell Edwards Stadium

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BYU linebacker Ben Bywater calls a play after a tackle during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Sept. 4, 2021.

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater reacts after a tackle against Arizona during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Bywater suffered a shoulder injury against Kansas and is unlikely for Friday’s game against Cincinnati.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A few weeks ago, BYU’s depth at the safety position was in question when Utah State transfer Crew Wakley needed assistance getting off the field after a collision with an Arkansas running back.

“There won’t be much of a drop-off. I have no doubt in his ability, the way he reads it, the way he can strike, the way he can run. … He came here and he has proven his worth. We are excited about his future.” — BYU linebackers coach Justin Ena on Harrison Taggart

Wakley didn’t return to the game, an eventual 38-31 Cougars win, but made a remarkably quick recovery from what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms. He was able to play on special teams in last week’s 38-27 loss at Kansas.

Wakley said he’s good to go on Friday night (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) when the 3-1 Cougars host 2-2 Cincinnati in BYU’s Big 12 home opener, although he isn’t sure if he’s regained his starting spot. Ethan Slade and Tanner Wall are listed as the starters on the depth chart released Monday; Talan Alfrey remains out with an undisclosed injury, while Micah Harper sustained a season-ending knee injury in fall camp.

Now BYU’s situation at linebacker is uncertain, after middle linebacker Ben Bywater — the team’s leading tackler with 32 takedowns already in 2023 — ran off the field in the second half against Kansas favoring a shoulder, and never returned. Bywater also led the Cougars in tackling in 2022 with 98 and in 2021 with 102.

That hasn’t been done in consecutive seasons at BYU since San Francisco 49ers All-Pro Fred Warner did it in 2016-17. The Cougars have been playing without redshirt freshman LB Isaiah Glasker, whom they are hoping to get back before they travel to TCU on Oct. 14.

What’s Bywater’s status?

Reports leaking out on CougConnect.com and other websites don’t paint an optimistic picture for a guy who had shoulder surgery after the 2022 season and missed spring camp recovering.

Defensive coordinator Jay Hill said Tuesday that the Olympus High product got an MRI on his shoulder Monday and said Bywater will be “day-to-day” until coaches get the final word on the MRI results.

“As you guys know, if he plays we will be really good and if he doesn’t the next guy up has to step up and play great,” Hill said.

That next guy up will be redshirt freshman Harrison Taggart, the former four-star linebacker out of Draper’s Corner Canyon High, who transferred to BYU from Oregon in June.

“Well, obviously (Bywater) is a great player, and I would love to have Ben out there, (but) if he doesn’t then Harrison Taggart has proven he is a great player as well and he will step in and play great,” Hill said.

Taggart has already established himself as a special teams ace, having blocked a punt against Southern Utah in Week 2, and has recorded two tackles and a quarterback hurry in three games.

“It is exciting,” Taggart said Tuesday when he was asked if he’s prepared to take on a starting role this week. “Every single day you are playing like you are the (starter). And coaches teach you like you should be better than the ones in case somebody goes down. So it is all business.”

Taggart filled in for Bywater in the late stages against the Jayhawks and felt good about the way he played.

“Football is not a perfect game, but I strive to be perfect,” Taggart said. “I need to be more physical at the point of attack this week, prepping for Cincy, and getting faster reads.”

Linebackers coach Justin Ena is now put in the position that safeties coach Hill has been in since Harper and Alfrey went down before the season started, examining his depth behind starters Max Tooley and AJ Vongphachanh, who have played well.

“I am hoping Ben might make it, but if he doesn’t Harrison has got to jump in there,” Ena said. “Harrison has been our fourth linebacker for the last two or three weeks, and has done a good job.”

Ena said Taggart was a four-star recruit and an Oregon signee for a reason.

“There won’t be much of a drop-off,” Ena said. “I have no doubt in his ability, the way he reads it, the way he can strike, the way he can run. … He came here and he has proven his worth. We are excited about his future.”

Ena said he is also excited about Glasker, the former safety who prepped at Bingham High.

“He will be out a couple more weeks,” Ena said. “The kid is a phenomenal athlete. … I expect big things from him this year.”

Freshmen Ace Kaufusi and Siale Esera and juniors Fisher Jackson and Ammon Hannemann are also part of the depth at the position. 


Cougars on the air

Cincinnati (2-2)
at BYU (3-1)
Friday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

Hill said Esera, the highly recruited prospect from nearby Timpview High, and Hannemann are returning to the field after having missed the last few games with injuries. 

“Where we lose a guy or two, we are getting some guys back as well,” Hill said. “Again, I have said this before: It is college football. You are going to have guys get injured, you are going to have to have guys step up.

“Bottom line: one guy goes down, the next guy has gotta step up. That is how it will be the rest of the year.”


BYU linebacker Harrison Taggart (11) celebrates the win over Arkansas at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. The former Oregon Duck may find himself in the starting lineup Saturday against the Bearcats if Ben Bywater is unable to go at linebacker.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News