Everybody associated with the BYU football program agrees that if the Cougars’ defense improves in 2024, it will be because they’ve figured out how to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

For all the strides that BYU’s defense took in 2023 under first-year defensive coordinator Jay Hill, it still fell way short in that category. As a result, BYU struggled to stop the run, struggled to come up with turnovers, and gave up a lot of those long, time-consuming drives that kept its own offense off the field for too many plays.

Obviously, Hill is well aware of the deficiencies last year, and he’s got the remedies ready to fix them.

But does he have the personnel?

“I know the scheme works,” he told the Deseret News in early June. “As more guys become familiar with the scheme, and believe in it, our defense will be better. We will create more havoc. We will get the ball back to our offense.”

To put it simply, BYU must get better play from its defensive linemen and rush ends, for if there was a weakness on last year’s defense, it was with the big boys up front. Injuries suffered by the likes of John Nelson, Blake Mangelson and Joshua Singh on the inside took their toll and tested BYU’s depth.

Those guys are back this year, and the unit was seemingly bolstered when 6-foot-3, 355-pound run-stopper Danny Saili transferred in from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College.

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However, Saili entered the transfer portal and landed at Arkansas, creating another hole in the interior of the defensive line for the Cougars. However, hopes are high for another juco transfer, Luke To’omalatai of Las Vegas via Long Beach City College in California.

“We definitively need to be more physical at the point of attack,” Hill said, while crediting second-year defensive line coach Sione Po’uha and second-year rush ends coach Kelly Poppinga “for doing a great job with those guys in spring camp.”

At the BYU Football Media Appreciation Day on June 24, Poppinga said he “feels great” about the rush ends and outside linebackers who will be counted on to get more pressure on QBs this season.

Returners include Boise State transfer Isaiah Bagnah, Big 12 preseason first-team defensive lineman Tyler Batty and Weber State transfer Logan Lutui.

“We feel way better about that group than a year ago, as far as depth,” Poppinga said. “The top-tier guys have played a lot of football, guys like Zay (Bagnah), Batty and Logan. They all had great springs.”

Poppinga said a second-tier group that includes redshirt sophomore Bodie Schoonover and newcomers Ephraim Asiata, Vili Po’uha, junior college transfer Sani Taula and freshman Kini Fonohema has been impressive in spring and summer workouts.

What kind of pressure are Kalani Sitake and Kyle Whittingham feeling this season?

“This younger group is going to be very successful in future years,” Poppinga said. “I feel really good with the experience, and then also with the younger guys that are coming up.”

Two key linebackers from last year’s team, senior Ben Bywater and freshman Siale Esera, were unable to finish the season due to injury, and it showed. If Bywater and Esera are ready for the opener — and there are still health concerns with both — BYU will have a strong and experienced linebackers group.

If they can’t, there could be more growing pains, although the addition of Weber State’s Jack Kelly will ease some of those concerns.

Getting healthier

Bywater and Esera “are doing great. I think they are both on track (to be ready for the Aug. 31 opener against Southern Illinois),” Poppinga said. “I would say Siale is a little farther along than Ben. But yeah, that linebacker crew is as deep as BYU has ever had, as far as depth goes. Jack Kelly has come in and looked great. Harrison Taggart looked great in the spring. Ace Kaufusi is solid. They are deep. I think there are six or seven guys that could help us this year.”

Kelly, the junior from Kearns, said he’s been impressed with the talent level of the linebackers corps, after making the move from the FCS ranks.

“I think from top to bottom, everybody can play,” Kelly said. “We have all been pushing each other, motivating each other. When one feels down the other will lift him up. I think we are looking really good heading into the season.”

As for Bywater and Esera, Kelly said the potential stars have been back with the team and “doing everything that we have been doing and doing it to their full ability.”

Defensive backfield

Jakob Robinson, Jayden Dunlap, Mory Bamba and Weber State transfer Marque Collins give Hill and cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford a solid group of corners with which to work. Freshmen Tre Alexander and Jonathan Kabeya have drawn positive reviews already this summer.

It appears that Micah Harper, who sat out last year with a knee injury, will move into that hybrid nickel spot in the secondary that Eddie Heckard played with so much success in 2023.

The safeties room is solid, with the return of junior Talan Alfrey, sophomore Raider Damuni and walk-ons Crew Wakley and Ethan Slade.


Freshmen Matthias Leach, Tommy Prassas and four-star prized recruit Faletau Satuala will add depth and could push for immediate playing time.

BYU safety Talan Alfrey (25) and defensive end Tyler Batty (92) tackle Oklahoma State wide receiver Brennan Presley (80) in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Mitch Alcala) | Mitch Alcala, Associated Press

“We have five to seven guys who have played a lot of football,” Alfrey said. “Guys are going to have to step up and differentiate themselves by making plays, being a leader, all that. That is what is going to help coach Hill determine the two who will start, and the other couple that will rotate with us.”

Alfrey, who played in only the final two games last year after sustaining a collarbone injury in preseason training camp, said he feels 100% and is ready to have a big year.

“I feel more explosive and faster,” he said. “My expectations for myself are high. I hold myself to a higher standard than other people hold me to. I am expecting to make a lot of plays this year, step up as a playmaker, as a leader on the defense, and just be more vocal getting the defense coordinated to get a lot of stops and cause chaos.”

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