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BYU’s newest assistant speaks Kyle Whittingham’s language

BYU hopes adding veteran coach and his extensive experience will provide lift in 2021

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Then-Utah State defensive coordinator Kevin Clune watches the Aggies’ scrimmage in 2015 at Romney Stadium. Clune was added to the BYU staff last week to coach the linebackers after serving as an unpaid advisor during the 2020 season.

Jeff Hunter, Deseret News

Some guy named Julius Caesar is supposed to have said, “Experience is the teacher of all things.”

BYU just hired a defensive coach who has experience stacked in layers out of his Nikes.

Can Kevin Clune make an impact on BYU’s defense, a unit that will face a far tougher schedule in 2021 than it did in 2020 when the Cougars put up impressive numbers during an 11-1 campaign?

Well, put it this way, he’ll coach linebackers, but do it with experience as a defensive coordinator at Oregon State, Utah State, Hawaii, Weber State and SUU. He’ll do so as a welcome voice in Ilaisa Tuiaki’s team room in creating game plans, teaching technique, brainstorming over tweaks, and melding into a staff that demands chemistry over personal agenda.

Clune has hung around BYU the past year as an unpaid adviser. But he was instrumental in sharing film, philosophy and experience defending Navy twice as linebackers coach at Memphis when the Cougars opened at Navy in 2020, a nationally televised blowout.

That 2020 defense, playing an AAC Sun Belt-type schedule, ended up ranked No. 4 in scoring defense and 10th in total defense.

It remains to be seen if the Clune hire leads to tweaks in BYU’s defensive philosophy going forward, especially how it applies to more QB pressure and aggression from the front seven. But Clune has the background to advance that if needed.

In poking around the current BYU staff doing a little recon on Clune, the feedback was positive. Nah, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to criticize the newcomer. After all, he has a 20-year relationship with head coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick from their days together at Southern Utah. But talking to guys who aren’t that high in the pecking order, Clune has already scored points.

Like Sitake, Clune’s defensive mindset comes from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. Clune was a graduate assistant at Utah and talks Whittingham’s lingo. Also, Clune has that old school, work ethic-inspired mantra Kyle got from his father Fred Whittingham. It’s all about not cutting corners, perfecting fundamentals and perfecting it with repetition, discipline and accountability. You come off a little gruff, but it’s always backed up with love and respect.

Here’s the inside skinny from the defensive side of the room.

Clune really helped BYU’s defense last season as an analyst. As a volunteer, it was impressive to see how much he invested and players were impressed from the onset how much he cared about them.

Clune had a direct impact on BYU’s game prep for Navy’s option during the summer.

Clune is impressive in how hard he worked. He has a high football IQ and understands defensive schemes as well as anyone at BYU. Coming from this person, that would include those former BYU coaches who went to Virginia. Extremely organized, he has well-thought-out plans of how to break down opponents and game prep.

But what really stood out to one observer is that Clune is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, yet fully embraces BYU’s culture and what Sitake is trying to create on the team, especially with the linebackers.

Shortly after his hire, Clune went on BYUtv with the Cougar Nation staff. He explained the impact coaching personalities have had on him throughout his life. It was a long line of men from Little League, high school, junior college — people nobody would know — and how they simply loved giving back to young men and the community. It deeply impacted him and gave him a love of the game that transcends a career and paycheck.

So, on the surface, leading up to his first full-time coaching gig at BYU when spring football opens up in a few weeks, it would appear Clune’s professional touch is a solid addition to Sitake’s staff.

In the BYUtv appearance Clune broke down the linebackers he would be working with and the first name he mentioned was Payton Wilgar because of his versatility.

“Payton Wilgar is a very, very versatile player. He can play the outside positions and the inside positions and we can end up putting him in a D-end position. He can do it all and when we start talking about putting in a new defense, we find ourselves saying, ‘Well, Payton would be perfect for this’ or, ‘We could move him to another piece of the board.’ He’s got a tremendous future, yet we still have a lot of  young players. I don’t think any of them are older than juniors,” said Clune.

Keenan Pili is a local kid who came from the safety position in high school but has really developed into a linebacker and hitter and leader. Again, he’s a tremendous player.  Max Tooley is so quick and is versatile and we are expecting a lot from him. We have Drew Jensen and Jackson Kaufusi back and I’m just very pleased with this group. There’s a lot of hard work and production there and I think they have what they need to go to the next level.”

It remains to be seen what impact the Clune hire will have on Sitake’s defense.

But after years of having an extra coach helping with the offense (offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos working with the O-line), that extra coach in a nine-member full-time staff roster will be put on the other side of the line.

How does it help?

More intense scrutiny, teaching, development on that side of the line is a given.

But more intriguing is what happens behind closed doors in defensive meetings prior to this 2021 spring practice session when coaches are designing a structure, how things look, formations, possible deployment of stunts, twists, shifts, different fronts, coverages, evolving philosophy preparation for offenses, and ultimately installation of game plans.

For all that, stay tuned.