Building BYU’s defense for year two in the Big 12

After a disappointing finish to what was a once-promising season in 2023, Jay Hill and his defensive staff got to work on building BYU’s defense for year number two in the Big 12. Heading into spring practice the opportunity to earn playing time was ripe.

2024 Photo by Aaron Cornia/BYU © BYU PHOTO 2024

The Cougars lost key starters on the defensive side of the ball last season in Max Tooley, AJ Vongphachanh, Atunaisa Mahe, Jackson Cravens, Kamden Garrett and Eddie Heckard. Notable returners Ben Bywater, Siale Esera and Micah Harper sat out spring ball because of injury. While Tyler Batty and Jakob Robinson are written in pen on the depth chart, everyone else is penciled in. Opportunities to earn playing time this fall were abundant. Bywater and Harper are coming off of season-ending surgeries from last season and will see the field when healthy, the question is when.

Because of the injuries to key returners, spring practice has allowed the newcomers to flourish, a necessity for the 2024 season.

“Getting the young guys reps and getting them experience. I’d say we have a young defense for the most part. Right? You know we had quite a few seniors who left us, guys that transferred in that were kind of one-year guys,” said BYU defensive end Tyler Batty. “So there’s a lot of guys who are going to have step and fill roles. I think thus far in spring ball the biggest thing is making sure that those guys are getting reps and getting experience and getting ready for fall camp.”

One of BYU’s most talented newcomers is Weber State transfer Jack Kelly. The versatile linebacker played both edge and linebacker for the Wildcats and has played both linebacker positions and gotten looks at edge during spring ball. Kelly, who played for Hill at Weber State, already knows the system but is still learning everything he can from the veteran players like Ben Bywater during spring ball. “Obviously he’s a very experienced linebacker so he’s teaching me little things about formations, just when to push certain formations how to play different runs stuff like that,” said Kelly.

Unlike last season, the Cougars have only brought in three transfers from the portal this offseason. BYU is banking on its youth movement, and the freshmen early enrollees have been turning heads so far.

Ephraim Asiata has already earned the praise of his coaches.

“Mentally, he is super smart; he picks up things really really quick. The physical part just getting him big, getting him strong. But man athletically, whew, he’s as athletic as anybody that we have on the defense as far as the things he can do,” said BYU defensive ends coach Kelly Poppinga on Asiata. “The multiplicity of the things we can do with him is going to be fun. He’s got to get bigger, he’s got to gain another 20 pounds, which I think is very doable before the season.”

Aside from Asiata, more help is on the way this season. Four-star safety Faletau Satuala will have the chance to compete for playing time in a safety room that was decimated by injuries last season. Incoming defensive linemen Kinilau Fonohema, Devoux Tuataga and Siosefa Brown will show up and add immediate depth to BYU’s defensive line for seasons to come.

“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,” said Hill.

The Cougars know the defense needs to change this season. The defense has ranked in the bottom third in the FBS in total defense, sacks and scoring in the last two seasons. Last year BYU brought in Jay Hill to improve the scheme and the talent and BYU went after the portal hard. This season, instead of trying to put bandaids on a sinking ship they reversed course and decided to go young on the defense. It might be this year, or it might be next season, but BYU fans are going to have to have patience. The young guys will have growing pains but the Cougars are banking on those players to develop and change the defense that has sputtered the last two seasons.

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