New BYU defensive coordinator and associate head coach Jay Hill didn’t try to win his news conference Wednesday morning, as many new hires try to do when they are introduced to the media and, in BYU’s case, a fanbase that desperately needs a pick-me-up after a mediocre regular season (7-5) in Provo and some troubling player exits via the transfer portal.
Hill didn’t go for easy laughs, didn’t promise an instant turnaround for a BYU defense that ranks 100th in allowing opponents to score, didn’t say the Cougars are going to take the Big 12 by storm next year, or anything of the sort.
The former Weber State coach just wanted to get to work, nodding in approval when head coach Kalani Sitake said he was eager to get the news conference over and return to more important matters — such as preparing to face SMU’s explosive offense in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17.
“I grew up a BYU fan. I remember having posters of BYU players in my bedroom, hanging up. It is kinda weird how life brings you full circle, in these situations like this.” — new BYU defensive coordinator and associate head coach Jay Hill
“I am super, super excited to be here at BYU,” was Hill’s opening statement, followed by: “It is kinda weird to come back.”
Hill, 47, grew up in Utah County (Lehi) and attended BYU football and basketball games with his parents, who are BYU graduates and remain big fans.
“I grew up a BYU fan,” he said. “I remember having posters of BYU players in my bedroom, hanging up. It is kinda weird how life brings you full circle, in these situations like this.”
Hill has never played for, or coached at, BYU, the school that is sponsored by his own faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But to Cougars fans throughout the world who took to social media Tuesday night when news leaked of his imminent hiring, it must feel like an old familiar warm blanket has been tossed around their shivering shoulders.
Hill’s confidently delivered message in a nutshell: Rebuilding BYU’s staggering defense is not going to be easy, but it will get done, and everything is going to be OK.
Will he be the BYU defense’s savior? Not immediately. As the former University of Utah player and assistant coach and Weber State head coach for nine years has said throughout his coaching career, “players win football games,” and right now, BYU does not have enough good players to win in the Big 12.
From this observer’s corner, that’s the big elephant in the room as Sitake shuffles his coaching staff and BYU pays higher salaries — Hill will make more than $1 million per year, as the Deseret News reported Tuesday — as part of the school’s financial commitment as a Big 12 member as more money flows into its coffers as a member, finally, of a Power Five conference.
Andy Reid, and quite possibly LaVell Edwards, couldn’t have won consistently with the talent and depth the Cougars put on the field on the defensive side of the ball this past season. Just roll the tape on those Arkansas, Liberty and East Carolina losses, if you are skeptical of that statement.
Hill has to know that — he coached with Sitake on Utah’s staff under Kyle Whittingham when Utah joined the Pac-12 and took its lumps for a few seasons — although he mentioned that the “admiration” he had at Utah and Weber State for BYU “is big.”
“I know this is a place where we can play high-level football,” Hill said. “They have done it consistently through Kalani’s career (55-34 at BYU). That was very intriguing to me. … I am excited to see what this can become because I think the sky is the limit.
“I believe in everything BYU is doing,” he continued. “The direction they are heading, the excitement of what we can continue to build, that is exciting to me. That kind of drew me to this opportunity.”
BYU also announced Wednesday the hiring of former Cougars linebacker Kelly Poppinga, who will be the special teams coordinator and a defensive assistant, although that role has not been specifically defined. Hill said that cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford will be retained, but linebackers coach Kevin Clune, safeties coach Preston Hadley and other staffers on that side of the ball are still being “evaluated” as he and Sitake seek “the best fits for the program.”
Having the two former BYU defenders on staff should be vital to recruiting, an area that was not a strong suit for outgoing defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. Hill was known as an outstanding recruiter during his time at Utah, often teaming with Sitake and now-Utah DC Morgan Scalley to lure top Latter-day Saint prospects away from BYU.
Recruiting obviously needs to be a priority on both sides of the ball for BYU in the Big 12, but especially on defense, where speed, physicality and athleticism will be needed week in and week out against the likes of Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and the schools departing for the SEC in a couple of years.
“First and foremost, you have to put a stake in your own territory (state),” Hill said of his recruiting philosophy. “And then everything surrounding the state is critical — Nevada, Arizona, California, the Pacific Northwest — those will be critical hotbeds that I feel very comfortable recruiting. ... And then Texas as well has got to be a piece.”
In what had to be music to BYU fans’ ears, Hill said his defense will be on attack, blitz frequently, and look for players who can get pressure on the quarterback. The words “drop eight” and “bend but don’t break” apparently are not in his vocabulary.
“We speak the same language when it comes to defensive football,” Sitake said. “… He is a great evaluator (of talent) and an amazing recruiter. I worked with him in recruiting (at Utah). I am excited to get back and do home visits and official visits and all that stuff we did when we were assistants. ... He has this presence about him that is hard for me to explain. He just has it.”
Sitake said Hill was “definitely” his top target when Tuiaki was demoted to defensive line coach midway through the season and the writing was on the wall that a new DC was needed, but BYU didn’t make a big push until Weber State was eliminated from the FCS playoffs last Saturday.
“From my point, I can just say that Kalani and these guys were extremely professional about it,” Hill said. “… It has really been just the last couple of days that things went very quickly.”
Hill’s oldest daughter, Ashtyn, will graduate from BYU soon, and he said he tasked Sitake and receivers coach Fesi Sitake, who worked for Hill at Weber State, with watching out for her in Provo and therefore has stayed in close contact with the cousins for several years.
Why BYU, and why now?
“It was the right time, and it was the right opportunity, and I can’t over-emphasize enough that Kalani was a humongous part in that timing and being able to work with him again, being able to work with Fesi and (tight ends coach) Steve Clark and some other coaches I had already worked with before in the past,” Hill said. “Reuniting is exciting to me right now.”
What else does Hill’s hiring mean?
It’s a clear message that BYU is willing to invest money for Power Five-caliber coaches, something the notoriously tight-fisted school has not been willing to do in the past. Coaching salary details are rarely leaked out of BYU. That Hill’s million bucks per year paycheck escaped the security of the accounting office probably wasn’t by coincidence.
“Going into the Big 12 conference, it is about taking care of your program, but also taking care of your players,” Sitake said. “You have to do everything you can as a program to function, and that means attract high-level players and high-level coaches. And Jay is a high-level coach.”
Even if he could not care less about winning a press conference.