Believe it or not, we are only a week away from the opening of BYU’s 2024 spring football camp.

The Cougars get back at it on Feb. 29 with one goal in mind — to erase memories of last year’s 5-7 campaign and make a bigger dent in the Big 12 race, something they failed to do in their first year in the Power Five conference.

“In recruiting, the first thing you gotta do is retain your current players. I was happy with the progress of the guys that played for us last year. We retained those guys. They are coming back. Cougar Nation will be excited to know that our best players are still here at BYU.” — BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

It is now a Power Four league, with the demise of the Pac-12 and the additions of four Pac-12 programs: Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Arizona State. The task to win the league just got a lot harder for BYU.

One of coach Kalani Sitake’s stated objectives is to get better on defense, especially along the defensive line. The Cougars were pushed around too much last year when they got into conference play and gave up way too many rushing yards to schools such as West Virginia, Iowa State and Oklahoma State.

That has to change. Also, BYU needs to develop a better pass rush. The Cougars tied with Virginia for fewest sacks in the country last year, getting to the quarterback only 11 times in 12 games (.92 per game).

That’s bad.

Of course, defensive coordinator Jay Hill knows that. On Signing Day last December, he said getting better defenders was a priority, from the high school and junior college ranks, and from the transfer portal.

“One thing that was super important for us is we needed more size, and we needed a little bit more length in our defensive lines,” Hill said. “We added a lot of length and size, and much more speed, in my opinion. And then we added three safeties, four linebackers, six defensive ends, and three D tackles. That group is going to be really good.

“Really good class. Some of them have joined us already. Some of them will come later, but super excited about where we are headed,” Hill concluded.

As for the defensive guys coming back, ESPN’s Billy Connelly ranked the Cougars 54th in terms of returning defensive players in the country, saying BYU gets back 63% of its defensive production 2023.

Notable losses on defense are defensive linemen Atunaisa Mahe, Caden Haws and Jackson Cravens, linebackers Max Tooley and AJ Vongphachanh and cornerbacks Kamden Garrett and Eddie Heckard, who was robbed by not getting an invite to the NFL combine. 

Heckard just turned in one of the best single-season performances for a cornerback in BYU history, in this reporter’s view.

Brothers Michael and John Henry Daley hit the transfer portal, with Michael landing at Rice and John Henry signing with Utah. Punter Ryan Rehkow and punt returner Hobbs Nyberg have also moved on, with Rehkow earning a much-deserved NFL combine invite.

The 2024 defense was given a nice boost when linebacker Ben Bywater decided to return. Other guys who considered moving on but decided to stay for another year include defensive ends Tyler Batty and Isaiah Bagnah. But more production will be needed from both if they hope to stay on the field and hold off some key offseason acquisitions such as Sani Tuala, Danny Saili and Luke To’omalatai.

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“In recruiting, the first thing you gotta do is retain your current players. I was happy with the progress of the guys that played for us last year. We retained those guys. They are coming back,” Hill said. “Cougar Nation will be excited to know that our best players are still here at BYU. I think our coaching staff did a phenomenal job this signing class with just keeping our players here and buying into what we know this is going to look like in the next couple of years.”

Last week, we presented our projections for BYU’s offensive depth chart in 2024.

Here’s a look at what the defensive depth chart and specialists depth chart could look like in Year 2 in the Big 12.

Defensive line

BYU defensive end Tyler Batty encourages fans as BYU and Oklahoma play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Nov. 18, 2023.
BYU defensive end Tyler Batty encourages the fans as BYU and Oklahoma play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At first glance, not much has changed from last year on BYU’s defensive line, despite Hill’s remarks that reinforcements are on the way. Batty and Bagnah were starters at the end positions last year, and both are back. Coaches have said that Batty has had a phenomenal offseason, and is bound and determined to get drafted a year from April.

We will pencil in Bagnah as the starting outside end for now, but the Boise State transfer needs to improve significantly to keep his spot. He will be pushed by returners Aisea Moa and Logan Lutui and some newcomers, such as Sani Tuala, the Australian who played at Citrus (California) College last year. 

BYU lost three of its top four interior defensive linemen — Haws, Mahe and Cravens — and really needs help in that area. John Nelson is back after injuries cut short the latter half of his junior season and is another of those guys who coaches say has put in extra work to be ready for next year’s NFL draft.

Rising senior Blake Mangelson, rising junior Joshua Singh and Snow College transfer David Latu are also in the mix, and will be joined by Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College transfer Danny Saili and Long Beach (California) City College transfer Luke To’omalatai on the inside as BYU puts a high priority on stopping rushing attacks.

Linebackers

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater tries to sack Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson at Razorback Stadium.
BYU linebacker Ben Bywater tries to sack Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A lot of attention has been paid to BYU’s transfer portal additions at quarterback (Gerry Bohanon and Treyson Bourguet), but perhaps the most impactful acquisition will be linebacker Jack Kelly, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound tackling machine from Weber State. Kelly’s arrival in Provo is huge as BYU attempts to replace Tooley and Vongphachanh.

Getting Bywater back is also a significant development. BYU’s defense was never the same after the Olympus High product suffered a season-ending injury in the Kansas game. Oregon transfer Harrison Taggart filled in admirably, but the learning curve was steep.

Other top returners who saw some time in 2023 when they weren’t injured are sophomores Siale Esera, Ace Kaufusi and Isaiah Glasker.

Defensive backs

BYU’s Marcus McKenzie (32) celebrates with teammate Crew Wakley, right, after his punt recovery from Southern Utah during game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Provo, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

This is another area where freshmen could come in and make big impacts, most notably safety Faletau Satuala out of Bountiful High and cornerbacks Jonathan Kabeya (Texas) and Therrian “Tre” Alexander (Georgia).

Sitake said at February’s Signing Day that Satuala will start out playing safety but is versatile enough to play in other spots. It will be interesting to see if the four-star recruit, rated as the top recruit in the state of Utah, can crack the starting lineup his first year in the program.

A lot will depend on whether Micah Harper (knee) and Talan Alfrey (collarbone) return to their 2022 form. Harper missed the entire 2023 season, while Alfrey made it back for the last few games. In their absence, walk-ons Crew Wakley and Ethan Slade filled in admirably and will surely stay in the mix for playing time. Sophomores Raider Damuni, Preston Rex and Chika Ebunoha are also on the rise.

The aforementioned Heckard and Garrett will be hard to replace, but the good news is Jakob Robinson is back to build upon a solid junior season, along with Mory Bamba and others.

Sophomore Marcus McKenzie made a big impact on special teams last year before he was injured. His speed and tackling ability is elite and he’s a potential every-down contributor if he returns healthy.

Other corners to keep an eye on are junior college transfer Jayden Dunlap and walk-on Evan Johnson.

Specialists

Boise State transfer Will Ferrin proved to be a godsend in 2023 as the Cougars went about replacing all-time leading scorer Jake Oldroyd, ensuring there will be no kicking concerns in 2024. Ferrin was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and made the clutch kick that pushed the BYU-Oklahoma State game into overtime. He’s a keeper.

BYU brought in Australian Sam Vander Haar from the transfer portal (Pitt) to replace the great Ryan Rehkow, who just might find himself drafted this April. Rehkow’s brother, Landon, is also a possibility at punter.

A couple of standout returners — Talmage Gunther and Hobbs Nyberg — moved on, but the Cougars should be OK there with receiver Keelan Marion, a speedster who showed the knack for making some long returns in 2023.

BYU’s projected 2024 defensive, specialists depth chart

Defensive line

Strongside defensive end (SE)
  • Tyler Batty — 6-5, 275, Sr.
  • Blake Mangelson — 6-5, 260, Sr.
Nose tackle
  • Danny Saili — 6-3, 355, Jr.
  • Joshua Singh — 6-0, 275, Jr.
Defensive tackle
  • John Nelson — 6-4, 275, Sr.
  • David Latu — 6-4, 300, R-Soph. or Luke To’omalatai, 6-3, 305, Jr.
Outside defensive end (OE)
  • Isaiah Bagnah — 6-4, 235, Sr.
  • Sani Tuala — 6-5, 260, Jr. or Aisea Moa, 6-2, 245, Soph. or Logan Lutui, 6-2, 250, Sr.

Linebackers

Outside (Rover) linebacker
  • Siale Esera — 6-3, 245, Soph.
  • Isaiah Glasker — 6-5, 220, Soph.
Middle (Mack) linebacker
  • Ben Bywater — 6-3, 235, Sr.
  • Harrison Taggart — 6-1, 235, Soph.
Strongside (Sam) linebacker
  • Jack Kelly — 6-2, 235, Jr.
  • Ace Kaufusi — 6-4, 218, Soph.
Cornerbacks
  • Jakob Robinson — 5-11, 170, Sr.
  • Mory Bamba — 6-3, 185, Sr.
  • Marcus McKenzie — 5-11, 172, Soph.
  • Evan Johnson — 6-0, 175, R-Soph.
  • Therrian “Tre” Alexander III — 6-2, 170, Fr.
  • Jayden Dunlap — 6-0, 173, Sr.
  • Jonathan Kabeya — 5-10, 170, Fr.

Safeties

Strong safety
  • Talan Alfrey — 6-2, 205, Jr.
  • Crew Wakley — 6-0, 200, Jr. or Raider Damuni, 6-10, 210, Soph.
Free safety
  • Micah Harper — 5-10, 195, R-Soph.
  • Faletau Satuala — 6-4, 200, Fr. or Ethan Slade — 6-0, 190, Jr. or Preston Rex — 6-0, 193, Soph. or Chika Ebunoha, 6-0, 185, Soph.

Specialists

Kicker
  • Will Ferrin — 6-3, 175, R-Jr.
Punter
  • Sam Vander Haar — 6-0, 218, Soph. or Landon Rehkow — 6-1, 178, Soph.
Kick returner
  • Keelan Marion — 6-0, 200, Jr.
  • L.J. Martin — 6-2, 205, Soph.
BYU running back LJ Martin scores a touchdown against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. Martin could see added time as a return specialist in 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News