For BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill and his staff, the honeymoon is over.

It’s time to put up or shut up.

The Cougars’ defense was given a grace period, of sorts, last year after Hill was hired to replace Ilaisa Tuiaki and restore the unit to its past glory.

“I think last year, a little bit, there was not enough trust in everything. I think this spring you see when all 11 guys are doing it together, good things will happen.”

—  BYU coach Kalani Sitake on the BYU defense

Immediate results were mixed. The Cougars jumped out to a 4-1 record, and the defense played reasonably well after shutting out a Sam Houston team in the opener that proved to be punchless on offense the entire season.

The only early loss was at Kansas, a 38-27 setback that was more on the offense, which allowed KU to get two defensive touchdowns. Then the bottom fell out, compounded by the loss of star linebacker and leading tackler Ben Bywater to a shoulder injury in the second half of the KU game.

The Cougars were riddled in the passing game by a third-string quarterback in the 44-11 loss at TCU, and would give up 31 points or more in each of their last five games when they desperately needed a win to get bowl eligible. The lowest point was back-to-back losses to West Virginia and Iowa State and coach Kalani Sitake questioning whether the defenders trusted Hill’s system.

As Sitake remarked last week, the defense seemed to have “figured it out” in the last two games, close losses to Oklahoma (31-24) and Oklahoma State (40-34 in 2OT).

Which brings us to 2024. BYU’s offense isn’t the only unit facing expectations to get better, or else. Hill’s defense is also under the gun. A bowl appearance appears to be the minimum to keep the pink slips away.

“Improvement (is the goal), right?” said BYU defensive end Tyler Batty when the Cougars began spring practices on Feb. 29. “That’s really what we are expecting. Last year there were some good things, there were some bad things. So, our expectations moving forward to this season are having a good defense, and having a better defense than we had last year.”

Obviously, that’s easier said than done. The offenses BYU will face in 2024 could be more prolific than those in 2023, with SMU, Utah, Arizona and Central Florida on the docket.

From the time Oklahoma State eked out the double-overtime win en route to the Big 12 championship game in the regular-season finale, Hill has said that the biggest improvement needs to come from the front seven, particularly the defensive line.

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He reiterated that last week after the third spring practice.

“We gotta get better there. There were certain games in the Big 12 where we either weren’t big enough, or stout enough, or just, we didn’t make the proper fits, for whatever reason,” Hill said. “We got to be much more stout inside than we were last year.”

The Cougars also need to stay healthy — injuries to Bywater, both projected starting safeties (Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey) and a couple of interior defensive linemen proved impossible to overcome — and find a playmaker or two to replace Max Tooley and Eddie Heckard.

Then there’s the glaring need for a better pass rush. The Cougars finished dead last in the country in sacks last year.

“We are not going to over-rotate like three or four years ago, but we gotta keep those front guys fresh. They can’t play every snap, especially your D line. So we need to be smart with them. We need depth. That’s what we talk about all the time,” Hill said. “We need some guys to step up and solidify themselves as big-time Big 12 starters.”

Reinforcements are on the way, most notably Weber State transfers Jack Kelly at linebacker and Marque Collins at cornerback, high school star Ephraim Asiata at defensive end, and junior college nose guard Danny Saili up the middle. And Sitake has said that more will come this summer through the juco ranks and, quite possibly, the transfer portal.

But the need to get better across the board is huge, Sitake acknowledged when spring camp opened, noting a “better grasp of the scheme” is where it will all begin.

“I think last year, a little bit, there was not enough trust in everything. I think this spring you see when all 11 guys are doing it together, good things will happen,” he said last Friday. “I think from what we have seen already from these five practices, I have been really pleased with how they are responding to coach Hill and to the other coaches on the defensive side.”

Here’s a group-by-group look at how BYU’s defense is shaping up one-third of the way through spring practices.

Defensive tackles were far from dominant

BYU defensive lineman John Nelson (94) tries to tackle Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) during a football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Senior interior defensive lineman John Nelson makes no bones about it. BYU’s defensive line was not up to snuff last year, as injuries and ineffectiveness made it an easy target for run-happy teams such as West Virginia, Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Nelson missed the last half of the season with an ankle injury and fellow returners David Latu and Josh Singh were also slowed by injuries; Caden Haws, Naisa Mahe and Jackson Cravens have graduated.

“We need to stop the runs up the middle, the defensive tackles, at least,” Nelson said. “We want to stop the run and force third-and-longs and then get to the quarterback, and get pass breakups, get fumbles, strip sacks, maybe a couple picks. We are looking for more production out of us this year. We need to step up as a unit.”

The 6-foot-3, 360-pound Saili, who teammates call “Tui,” has already joined the team from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community college and “is going to be a guy who is going to be on the field,” Sitake said. “We got to get him in playing shape.”

Snow College transfer John “JT” Taumoepeau is also in camp and ready to contribute.

“We got some more trust in our scheme, and we got some more experience, so I think it is going to be a lot better this year,” Nelson said.

Another juco transfer, Luke To’omalatai, 6-3, 305, arrives this summer from Long Beach (California) City College.

“We are still not done with what we have to do to add to our team,” Sitake said. “But for right now in spring I feel a lot better now than I did last year.”

Defensive ends were a disappointment in 2023

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

Seniors Batty and Isaiah Bagnah are back as starters from 2023, but let’s face it, they weren’t great at rushing the passer last year, at all. Bagnah isn’t practicing this spring as he recovers from surgery/injury, which is giving new players such as Asiata, an early enrollee, more time to show what they can do.

“We have a lot of guys who are hungry,” Batty said. “We have a really good (defensive ends) room and I am stoked, because we have a lot of guys who want to help this team win.”

Weber State transfer Logan Lutui and walk-on Blake Mangelson were banged up much of last year and are back for more. Aisea Moa and Bodie Schoonover are making strides, but in danger of losing ground to newcomers if they don’t continue to improve.

“We are way further ahead with just ownership of the defense and knowledge and understanding of what we are trying to get done (from last year),” Hill said. “Recruiting is a huge part (of getting better). Some of the young guys that have come in are some of our best players right now, like Ephraim Asiata looks really good right now. Viliami Po’uha looks really good right now. I am proud of some of those young guys that are stepping in.”

Coach: Sky is limit for these linebackers

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater tries to sack Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback KJ Jefferson at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. After suffering an injury early in the 2023 season, the Olympus High product will be back for the Cougars in 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Asked if there’s any chance that his 2024 group of linebackers can be as good as last year’s group, which featured the aforementioned Tooley and tackling machine AJ Vongphachanh, LBs coach Justin Ena didn’t hesitate.

“They will be better. They have to be better to make sure that we win more than a few games,” Ena said. “We gotta get bowl-bound and we gotta make some noise in the Big 12, for sure. It starts with these guys.”

These guys are Ben Bywater and rising sophomores Siale Esera, Isaiah Glasker and Harrison Taggart, to name a few. Bywater and Esera are not participating in contact drills in camp.

“We gotta be smart with those guys. It is such a fine line,” Hill said. “They got a lot of work they have to do to get their bodies healthy, so they can stay healthy. But you don’t need to wear them out.”

Other LBs pushing to make the two-deep chart are Miles Hall, returned missionary Nathan Hoke, converted running back Nukuluve Helu, Ace and Maika Kaufusi, and Utah State transfer Sione Moa.

Of course, Weber State’s Kelly, who led the Big Sky conference with 10.5 sacks in 2023, might be the key to everything.

“I feel like I fit in well,” said Kelly, a Kearns High product who isn’t sure exactly which LB position he will play. “It is the same defense that we ran up at Weber, so I should be able to be utilized the same way I was up there. But ultimately I think my speed is going to be key for me, and having some success here.”

Ena said Kelly will probably play one of the outside linebacker positions, Sam or Rover.

“He’s a really good athlete, moves well, makes a ton of plays, very fluid,” Ena said. “He’s been a great addition to our team.”

Jakob Robinson a big key to cornerbacks room

BYU cornerback Jakob Robinson (0) intercepts a pass during game against Cincinnati and returns it for a touchdown at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

BYU essentially played three cornerbacks last year — Eddie Heckard, Kamden Garrett and Jakob Robinson. Heckard and Garrett have moved on, while Robinson is back and should be in line for some preseason Big 12 accolades after posting four interceptions and a pick-six last year.

Hill brought in another former Weber State star — 5-11, 175-pound senior Marque Collins — from his old school as a walk-on who made more than 100 career tackles in Ogden. Others with a chance to star include redshirt junior Mory Bamba, redshirt juniors Jayden Dunlap and Dylan Flowers and sophomores Zion Allen, Marcus McKenzie and Evan Johnson.

It’s a talented group, but fairly inexperienced.

“There are some talented young guys that were with us last year that gotta step up,” Hill said. “Somebody has gotta become a starter with Jakob Robinson.”

McKenzie is still out with an injury that cut short his freshman season, and Collins’ reps in camp have been limited as well. Freshman Tre Alexander could push for immediate playing time.

“It is a talented group. We just need those guys to separate themselves, who are the starters and who are the backups,” Hill said.

Safeties could form the soul of the defense

Don’t want to jinx this group, but BYU’s safeties room is loaded. There is experience and talent everywhere. Hill, who oversees this group, will have a difficult time finding playing time for all the guys who are worthy of it.

It starts with the aforementioned Alfrey — who played in the final three games last year after coming back from a shoulder/collar bone injury — and Harper, a converted cornerback. While they were out last year, walk-ons Crew Wakley, Ethan Slade and Tanner Wall (before he got hurt) filled in admirably.

“So, I like the safeties right now,” Hill said. “That is a group that has progressed pretty well. There is a ton of competition with that group. I mean, we got six or seven guys back there who have started games. That’s another group where this spring the cream has got to rise to the top as to who is going to be the starter come fall time.”

Also in the mix are sophomore Raider Damuni, former receivers Preston Rex and Koa Eldredge, Utah transfer Darrien Stewart and special teams ace Chika Ebunoha.

“There is a lot of talent, a lot of ability, and then there are young guys coming in that have the ability, too, so it is never (a problem) to have a crowded room and have a lot of good players,” Sitake said.

BYU safety Talan Alfrey, left, and linebacker Ace Kaufusi tackle Oklahoma State wide receiver Leon Johnson III (17) during game on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Stillwater, Okla. | Mitch Alcala, Associated Press