BYU’s defense improved in 2023 after bottoming out in 2022, a cellar-dive that cost then-defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki his job.

But the unit under Tuiaki’s replacement, Jay Hill, still wasn’t good enough to get the Cougars to a bowl game in their first season in the Big 12. Of course, the offense wasn’t good enough, either.

“With the way recruiting went last year, we feel some of our best players are still to join us, and it is going to create a lot more competition. But if you are recruiting the right way, that is how it is always going to be. There is always going to be competition coming in.”

—  BYU DC Jay Hill

Which brings us to 2024, with BYU’s 15 spring football practices having concluded last Saturday in Provo. Will Hill be able to put a Power Four conference-ready defense on the field this season in year two of his rebuilding project?

“Well, we gotta continue to get bigger and stronger, for sure,” Hill said. “That’s a critical part of summer conditioning. We gotta continue to get better ownership of the defense, because right now we are not there yet. We did take steps forward, but we are not where I want to be.”

The former Weber State head coach admitted that he will probably never be satisfied, but the ceiling is pretty high for a unit that lost a few key contributors but has a pretty good nucleus returning.

“I don’t know that we are ever going to be exactly where I want to be, but we are heading in the right direction,” Hill said. “For us to compete for the Big 12 title, we gotta continue to take big steps forward.”

That’s right — although the Cougars are probably going to be picked to finish 13th or 14th in the 14-team Big 12 this fall, Hill and company have their sights set on a league title. That’s the kind of optimism and confidence the former University of Utah defensive back has brought to BYU.

Gone from the team are some of its best playmakers — linebacker Max Tooley and cornerbacks Eddie Heckard and Kamden Garrett — but help is on the way in the form of more Weber State transfers, linebacker Jack Kelly and cornerback Marque Collins, and junior college transfers along the defensive line, Luke To’omalatai, Danny Saili and Sani Tuala. Of those five promising additions, only Kelly participated in spring camp.

“I know we are further ahead this year than last year, with scheme (knowledge),” Hill said. “We are filling some holes, but I like how guys have stepped up. … We have accomplished what we needed to, and it is good to move on to the next phase of the year.”

About the only troubling news for the defense’s progression in 2024 was Hill’s assessment that redshirt senior linebacker Ben Bywater might not be fully healthy by the time preseason training camp begins in early August. Bywater had shoulder surgery last season after getting injured in the loss at Kansas. BYU’s defense never really recovered.

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Weber State’s Collins, safeties Micah Harper and Tanner Wall, and linebacker Siale Esera didn’t participate in spring camp, either, due to various injuries and recoveries from surgery.

“There are some guys that might linger into the first part of (preseason) camp, but we should have them all back,” Hill said. “The one that is hairy (is) Bywater. (He) is still progressing with his injury. He’s still a little ‘wait and see’ exactly when we will get him back.”

With all those guys watching from the sidelines during camp, and doing some occasional mentoring and coaching, newcomers such as Kelly, freshman cornerback Tre Alexander and freshman safety Tommy Prassas have been able to flourish. Another freshman, defensive end Ephraim Asiata, was turning heads before being sidelined by an undisclosed injury.

“I really like where certain players have gotten,” Hill said. “Like, (cornerback) Jakob Robinson is playing at a super high level. I like where Jack Kelly is at right now. I have seen some safeties step up.

“It is probably unfair to just point out a few guys. But those guys have really stepped up.

“I see a big increase in just leadership this year over last year. I see more ownership that the players have (and) a better expectation of what we want as coaches,” Hill continued. “Overall, I like where we are heading and I like the progress we have made.”

Kalani Sitake likes what he sees

BYU Football head coach Kalani Sitake walks off the SAB outdoor practice fields after practice at the start of spring camp in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

After the first live scrimmage of spring camp, head coach Kalani Sitake said the offense was clearly ahead of the defense, and not just because that unit was sitting out fewer players. He hinted that the defense was having trouble stopping the run.

But after the second scrimmage, Sitake spoke more positively about the defense, and after spring camp wrapped up, he was even more excited about its progress.

“I like the way that Jay is working with them,” Sitake said. “You can tell guys are understanding the system a little bit more and are more comfortable with it. … More than anything, I am really impressed with all the new guys that showed up in spring, whether they are freshmen or returned missionaries. Those guys did a really good job.”

Midway through camp, linebacker Isaiah Glasker acknowledged the defense had some work to do to catch up with the offense.

“I feel like our defense has really improved,” Glasker said on March 26. “Like they said, the offense is a little bit ahead of us. But I think the defense is right there. I am really excited.”

Priorities: Pressure the passer, stop the run

BYU’s defensive issues in 2023 were well-documented. The Cougars couldn’t get sacks at all, and they couldn’t stop the run with any consistency. Injuries to stalwarts such as Harper, Talan Alfrey, Bywater and defensive lineman John Nelson contributed to that deficiency.

It is way too early to say the problems have been solved, but Hill is high on the junior college transfers who will join the defensive line this summer, along with some talented incoming freshmen.

“With the way recruiting went last year, we feel some of our best players are still to join us, and it is going to create a lot more competition,” Hill said. “But if you are recruiting the right way, that is how it is always going to be. There is always going to be competition coming in.”

Getting fifth-year senior Tyler Batty back for another year will help the pass rush, and if Isaiah Bagnah improves over the offseason, the competition for the two starting defensive end positions will be heated.

“For as much as we blitzed last year, we need to generate more sacks,” Hill acknowledged. “In the Big 12, more quarterbacks did a phenomenal job last year of getting the ball out of their hands. And most of the teams did not give up a lot of sacks last year, because they do, they get the ball out of their hand well, and so it is both. You gotta give credit to the opponent, and we gotta be better at pushing pressure on the quarterback.”

Defensive ends coach Kelly Poppinga said returnees Logan Lutui and Blake Mangelson will also be in the mix.

“There are four guys who played last year and want to play a lot, want playing time,” Poppinga said, referencing Batty, Bagnah, Mangelson and Lutui. “So it is good to have that depth. Now we got a find a way to get all four of them out there and playing.”

Poppinga said redshirt sophomore Bodie Schoonover has solidified himself as the fifth DE in the rotation. Asiata made plays early in camp and returned missionary Viliami Po’uha has impressed, along with Aisea Moa.

“We are in a good spot,” Poppinga said.

BYU defensive end Tyler Batty, rear, sacks Cincinnati quarterback Emory Jones (5) during game Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Provo, Utah.
BYU defensive end Tyler Batty, rear, sacks Cincinnati quarterback Emory Jones during game Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Provo, Utah. The Cougars were among the worst teams in the nation in QB sacks in 2023. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press