While BYU basketball coach Mark Pope was working wonders last winter with pretty much the same roster he had the previous season, the Cougars’ football coaches took notice.

Particularly those on the defensive side.

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

—  BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

One of the secrets to the hoop team’s success was continuity. Players were familiar with Pope’s system, and executed it more efficiently than the year before.

BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill brought in a few newcomers to give BYU’s 2024 defense a boost — former Weber State linebacker Jack Kelly is exhibit A — but for the most part, Hill and head coach Kalani Sitake are banking on guys being able to build upon their experience last year.

“I know we are further ahead this year than last year with scheme,” Hill said after spring practices concluded on March 30. “We were able to rest. ... Some of our veteran guys that we know that we can win with, they had good springs, got the work done that they needed to, but then we were kinda looking to build some depth.

“I think we have accomplished what we needed to, and it is good to move on to the next phase of the year,” Hill concluded.

A few new names are on the defensive and special teams depth charts listed below, such as Kelly and new punter Sam Vander Haar, a transfer from Pitt. The Deseret News is projecting Weber State transfer cornerback Marque Collins and defensive tackle Danny Saili of Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College will also make the two-deep.

Taking a stab at the Cougars' post-spring depth chart, including starting QB battle
Does no spring game help or hinder the Cougars?

For the most part, it is the same group that made some strides in Hill’s first year as DC, but needs to continue on an upward trajectory for BYU to get back to a bowl game after the Cougars went 5-7 in 2023.

“We’ve got a good mix of veteran players and guys who are new and hungry,” said defensive end Tyler Batty. “I think right now where the defense is in a good place. We have made some good progress in spring ball. But I think there is still a good bit to do.”

A lot of the players, such as Batty, linebacker Ben Bywater, defensive tackle John Nelson, defensive end Isaiah Bagnah and cornerback Jakob Robinson have said they thought about moving on, but “have a big chip on our shoulder,” according to Nelson, and want to go out as winners and erase the bad taste of a non-bowl season from their mouths.

“We got 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.

By most accounts, Hill’s defense was better than the disaster that was 2022, a disaster that cost Ilaisa Tuiaki his job. But that didn’t show in the numbers.

BYU’s 2023 defense was 96th in scoring defense (29.83) and 106th in total defense (417.7 yards), the program’s worst defensive showing, statistically, in Sitake’s eight-year tenure. It was a bit worse than in 2022, when it was 97th in scoring defense (29.46) and No. 94 in total defense (408.1).

The difference, of course, is that the 2023 schedule was more difficult, with the likes of Texas, West Virginia, TCU, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Oklahoma State on the docket.

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

Here’s the Deseret News’ fifth-annual stab at the post-spring defensive depth chart and special teams depth chart. The post-spring offensive depth chart was posted online earlier this week:

Demanding more from defensive line

Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon II (0) runs past BYU defenders for a touchdown in overtime of a game Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Stillwater, Okla.
Oklahoma State running back Ollie Gordon II (0) runs past BYU defenders for a touchdown in overtime of a game, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Stillwater, Okla. | Mitch Alcala, Associated Press

Shortly after BYU fell in double overtime to Oklahoma State to end its first season in the Big 12, Hill said the biggest area of need was defensive line. That showed in recruiting, as BYU inked the aforementioned Saili and a couple other junior college transfers such as Luke To’omalatai and Sani Tuala.

They also made it a priority in high school recruiting, landing edge rushers Devoux Tuataga, Siosefa Brown, Viliami Po’uha, Kini Fonohema and Ephraim Asiata.

Of those, Asiata stood out the most in spring camp, having graduated high school (Herriman) early in order to participate.

But we’re not ready to put him in our two-deep projections just yet, mostly because of all the veterans coming back who will have a leg up when preseason training camp begins in late July or early August.

“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. … So we are looking forward to some increased competition with those guys coming in.”

Aside from the defensive linemen listed below, interior players to watch moving forward include Snow College transfer John Taumoepeau and incoming freshman Dallin Johnson of Springville High.

Don’t limit these linebackers

BYU linebacker Jack Kelly, a transfer from Weber State, goes through spring drills in Provo on March 8, 2024.
BYU linebacker Jack Kelly, a transfer from Weber State, goes through spring drills in Provo on March 8, 2024. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

We’re being a bit optimistic when we list oft-injured sixth-year senior Ben Bywater as the starting middle linebacker for 2024, considering Hill hinted at the end of spring camp that the Olympus High product is not a sure thing yet to return healthy from offseason shoulder surgery.

If Bywater is back, BYU has one of the deepest groups of linebackers in the country; if not, there could be problems. Weber State transfer Kelly brings plenty of experience and athleticism, but beyond those two, the room is a bit inexperienced.

“I think coach (Justin) Ena has done a phenomenal job with that group,” Hill said of the LBs. “There have been some younger guys stepping up into that role. That is what spring ball is for, and we still have 29 practices in fall camp to continue to get those guys better.”

Other linebackers not listed below who could contribute are Sione Moa, Maika Kaufusi and Miles Hall.

“I feel like the competition is really stiff right now (to win starting jobs),” said Isaiah Glasker. “So come season time, I feel like we are going to be, like, super good, just because we got a great offense that is pushing us to hopefully be the best defense in not only the whole Big 12, but nationally. So I am excited for what is to come.”

Doubling down on defensive backs

East Carolina Pirates Keaton Mitchell (2) runs the ball while avoiding BYU’s Micah Harper (1) during a NCAA college football game Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Provo, Utah. The Pirates won 27-24. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

There might be a silver lining to the plethora of injuries that hit BYU’s safeties room last year, taking out Micah Harper for all of the season and Talan Alfrey for most of the season. Walk-ons such as Tanner Wall, Ethan Slade and Crew Wakley were able to step in and play a lot, and play reasonably well, until Wall joined Harper and Alfrey in the trainers’ room with his own season-ending injury.

Harper and Alfrey are back and healthy in 2024, and we’ve penciled them in as the starters although the competition will continue to be fierce, Hill has said.

Proposed ‘super league’ could work — if principal figures contain their greed

“Bottom line, there are a lot of guys,” he said, noting that freshman Tommy Prassas “has raised a big eye brow” in camp. “It is going to continue to be a big battle come fall camp in that group.”

While Harper and Wakley (shoulder injury) missed camp to recover, sophomore Raider Damuni made steady improvement and is also in the mix to make the two-deep chart.

At cornerback, Jakob Robinson returns for a final season after making four interceptions last year, including a pick-six. The biggest question is who will replace Eddie Heckard in that nickel spot that Hill likes to use a lot, and who will stand in for Kamden Garrett at the other corner spot.

Junior college transfer Jayden Dunlap is ready to shine, Robinson said after spring ball, while also noting that Mory Bamba and Weber State transfer Marque Collins are pushing to start as well.

Special teams should be solid

Remember when 2023 spring camp broke and everybody was worried about the kicking game? Well, Boise State transfer Will Ferrin earned the starting job, and then made almost everyone forget about Jake Oldroyd with a solid season.

Ferrin starts the 2024 season as one of the better kickers in the Big 12.

The most pressing question is which punter — Vander Haar or Landon Rehkow — will replace the great Ryan Rehkow. Special teams coach Kelly Poppinga said the punters are different in what they bring to the table, so both could be used depending upon the situation.

BYU’s projected 2024 defensive depth chart

  • DE 92 Tyler Batty (Sr.); 93 Blake Mangelson (Sr.).
  • NT 55 Danny Saili (Jr.); 99 Joshua Singh (Jr.).
  • DT 91 John Nelson (Sr.). 90 David Latu (Jr.).
  • DE 13 Isaiah Bagnah (Sr.); 59 Logan Lutui (Sr.).
  • OLB 16 Isaiah Glasker (So.); 18 Ace Kaufusi (So.).
  • MLB 2 Ben Bywater (Sr.); 11 Harrison Taggart (So.).
  • OLB 17 Jack Kelly (Jr.); 54 Siale Esera (So.).
  • LC 29 Jayden Dunlap (Jr.); 4 Marque Collins (Sr.).
  • RC 0 Jakob Robinson (Sr.); 19 Mory Bamba (Jr.).
  • FS 25 Talan Alfrey (Jr.); 22 Tommy Prassas (Fr.).
  • SS 1 Micah Harper (Jr.); 3 Raider Damuni (So.).


  • K 44 Will Ferrin (Jr.); 37 Jordan Kapisi (Fr.).
  • P 31 Sam Vander Haar (So.); 39 Landon Rehkow (Fr.).
  • KR 17 Keelan Marion (Jr.); 83 Weston Covey (Fr.).
  • PR 82 Parker Kingston (So.); 24 Therrian Alexander (Fr.).
BYU football defensive coordinator Jay Hill talks with kicker Will Ferrin (44) during a practice on the SAB outdoor practice fields at the start of spring camp in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News