BYU put on a mini-media day last Saturday after spring football practices wrapped up in Provo, giving reporters an opportunity to talk to head coach Kalani Sitake, coordinators Aaron Roderick and Jay Hill, and some of the players expected to shine for the Cougars in their second season in the Big 12.

Quarterbacks Jake Retzlaff and Gerry Bohanon, receiver Chase Roberts, offensive lineman Connor Pay, safety Talan Alfrey, cornerback Jakob Robinson, tight end Keanu Hill and linebacker Jack Kelly all participated in the interviews, among others.

Wait, what? Who is Jack Kelly?

“I’m kinda surprised myself that I’m here, to be honest,” said the BYU defense’s latest transfer portal addition, glancing around the room. “These other guys here are stars who have proved themselves already.”

That the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Kelly was chosen to represent the defense at the gathering says a lot about the expectations coaches have for him, particularly Hill, his former coach at Weber State.

“I know Jack very well. I coached him when I was at Weber State,” Hill said last December when BYU signed the former Kearns High standout. “He’s really one of the most dynamic FCS players in the country. We’re lucky to get him. It’s fun to have him back with me. I know what he can do. I’ve seen him up close, in-person.”

Actually, Kelly proved he was a star at the FCS level the past two seasons, totaling 85 tackles, 16.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, seven pass breakups and an interception in 28 games for the Wildcats. He led the Big Sky Conference last season with 10.5 sacks.

Kelly, 21, has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

“I bet on myself, always,” Kelly said, when asked if he can make a similar impact at the FBS level and in the Big 12. “People are counting on me. That’s good. I like that. I am hoping to go out there and prove them right. I am excited for this opportunity.”

If Kelly can match the contributions of last year’s additions from Weber State — cornerbacks Eddie Heckard and Kamden Garrett — he will have done well. The previous year, WSU transfer defensive end Logan Lutui was also finding a role before an injury derailed his first season at BYU.

“Yeah, I am a goal-setter. I want to just be an impact player. I want to help this team in any way I can,” Kelly said. “My goals are team goals. I want to be able to win a Big 12 championship and make the College Football Playoff.”

Growing up a fan of … Penn State?

In a roundabout way, BYU fans can thank the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City for getting Kelly to Provo. His father came to Utah from Pennsylvania to do construction for the Games in 2000 or so, and met his mother, who was from Sandy.

He grew up a Penn State football fan, but BMX was his first love and he didn’t play organized tackle football until his freshman year at Kearns.

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“I was pretty athletic, so one day my dad was like, ‘I think it is finally time to try out football,’” Kelly said. “I did that and fell in love with it.”

How athletic is he? Kelly can do a standing back flip in full pads. He honed the skill at a trampoline place in Draper, he said, but don’t expect him to do it after his first sack, or first pick-six, at BYU.

“That would probably draw a flag,” he said.

At Kearns, Kelly became a two-year starter and earned 6A second-team all-state honors as a senior in the pandemic-altered 2020 season as a two-way player. He had 59 tackles, two interceptions and 4.5 sacks in his career, but was actually a more prolific offensive player with 66 catches for 1,299 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Then-BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki reached out and Kelly made an unofficial visit to BYU and drew interest from the likes of Utah State, Air Force, Army and New Mexico, but no scholarship offer came from the Cougars and he ended up at Weber State, where Hill had “something special” going in Ogden.

“I was just happy to have the opportunity to play Division I football,” he said. “My goal has always been to make it to the NFL, and Weber State gave me a good start to that.”

Kelly said he almost entered the transfer portal a year ago, when Hill was leaving Weber State for BYU and would eventually bring Garrett and Heckard with him, but Kelly played defensive end his first season in Ogden and wanted to get a full season of playing linebacker under his belt “and see where that took me.”

Reuniting with Hill, learning about BYU

Kelly said shortly after he entered the transfer portal, BYU reached out and invited him on an official visit. He committed soon after, along with teammate Marque Collins, a cornerback who wasn’t able to participate fully in spring camp due to an undisclosed injury.

He was impressed with head coach Kalani Sitake’s “family approach” to recruiting and committed to BYU not long after his visit. He also talked to some current returning players such as former Weber State offensive lineman Jake Eichorn, who is now his roommate in Orem, about life in Utah County.

He got the perspective of Heckard and Garrett as fellow nonmembers of the faith that sponsors and supports BYU, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Not being (a member of the church) was not a worry at all,” he said. “I believe in God, and I believe it is good to learn more about all religions and how people live. I give God all the glory for everything I have and have done.”

Kelly’s sister recently graduated from the University of Utah, and he acknowledges that many of his friends growing up in Kearns were big Utes fans.

What are the pressure points for BYU as it eyes Year 2 in the Big 12?

“My sister has already got some BYU gear,” he said. “She loves to support me, and that has been awesome to see. Everybody in the family has been rocking BYU gear everywhere since I signed.”

What about the old homies for K-town?

“Some of them have said, ‘I am a Utah fan, but now I am going to cheer for BYU because of you.’” Kelly said. “Everyone has been really supportive and it has been awesome to see that.”

Of course, being familiar with Hill’s defense was also a big drawing card.

When it was suggested to Hill that he seems to be prioritizing former Weber State players, he said that is “absolutely not” the case and that he has not contacted any of them until they were in the transfer portal.

“Just so everyone (gets it) straight, I have never (done that). I can’t talk to them, can’t contact them. If the right guys go in the portal and they are getting looks elsewhere, then I have looked at the right guys,” Hill said. “A lot of the guys have gone into the portal, and they are not the right fit here, or we are not taking that position group. So it is not just (Weber State players). That’s any guy that goes into the portal; we are going to bring the right fit in here for us.”

Where will Kelly play?

Kelly appears to be the right fit, on and off the field.

“He understands what we are trying to get done. He knows how I coach. He has looked really good so far. He is one of the strongest players on our team, and he is running really good right now,” Hill said. “I have been very impressed with him so far.”

“I know Jack very well. I coached him when I was at Weber State. He’s really one of the most dynamic FCS players in the country. We’re lucky to get him. It’s fun to have him back with me. I know what he can do. I’ve seen him up close, in-person.”

—  BYU DC Jay Hill on Jack Kelly

After the third practice of spring camp, Kelly was not sure which linebacker position he would play at BYU, outside or inside. After the 15 spring practices, he was asked the same question.

“They have really honed in on me playing outside backer in the three-backer sets, and inside backer in our two-backer sets,” he said. “With our 3-3 defense, they have also been allowing me to rush off the edge and kind of play a defensive end role. So it has been a little bit of everything.”

Gone are outstanding linebackers Max Tooley and AJ Vongphachanh, and Ben Bywater and Siale Esera sat out of spring training with injuries. Hill said Bywater’s return before fall camp begins “is hairy” and not a sure thing, so a lot of roles are still up in the air.

Linebackers coach Justin Ena said Jack Kelly earned the nickname “Sack Kelly” for a reason at Weber State, and his ability to rush the passer can’t be ignored.

“Jack will probably be some type of an outside linebacker. He’s a really good athlete, moves well, makes a ton of plays. Very fluid. He’s been a great addition to our team,” Ena said. “He does a lot of different things. He’s got good size, good strength and great speed.”

Ena said if Bywater returns healthy and guys such as Esera, Kelly, Isaiah Glasker, Harrison Taggart and Ace Kaufusi continue to develop, this group of linebackers “will be better” than last year’s unit.

“I like where we are right now,” Ena said. “Jack Kelly is a big part of that.”

Which is why Kelly was a big part of post-spring media day.

BYU linebacker Jack Kelly practices at the Cougars indoor facility during spring camp in Provo.
BYU linebacker Jack Kelly practices at the Cougars' indoor facility during spring camp in Provo. | BYU Photo