BYU fall camp: Building a defense on the fly, finding a young core for the future and key position battles

By Kevin Reynolds
Aug. 1, 2023, 12:00 p.m.
The lead up to the Big 12 is officially over in Provo.
After Kalani Sitake overhauled his defensive staff and brought in over 20 transfers this offseason to prepare, BYU is finally stepping into the Power Five. Only time will tell if these changes have BYU ready for its new conference.
Now it’s time to get going.
With the staff and roster in place, BYU opened fall camp this week in Provo. Here are five thoughts as the Cougars prepare for their season opener against Sam Houston on Sept. 2.
1. Getting the defense back together
New defensive coordinator Jay Hill went through the entire offseason with BYU. He was there for the bowl game in December and had his system installed by the time spring camp ended in April.
That said, this August will still be the first time Hill really gets to see a complete picture of his defense.
During spring, Hill was missing a number of starters he will rely on this year. Linebackers Ben Bywater and Max Tooley were sidelined. Caden Haws was dealing with an injury.
Also since spring ended, Hill used the transfer portal aggressively to add pieces and make his defense more Power Five ready. Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh, Weber State corner Kamden Garrett, Oregon’s Harrison Taggart and a number of others have joined the team this summer.
It was a needed change. BYU had to have a talent upgrade on that side of the ball to be moderately competitive. But it still creates a situation where there are plenty of new faces who have little experience playing with each other.
Hill will essentially have four weeks to set a depth chart and work with a unit trying to come together in real time. It will be interesting to see whether Hill tries to set his top-end depth chart earlier than normal in camp so his starting unit can begin to accumulate reps together.
BYU is opening with Sam Houston and Southern Utah in September. So Hill will conceivably have more time to work out the kinks in the first two weeks of the year. But this will be a quick learning curve for a new coordinator and essentially a new defense.
2. A young core for the future
Some of BYU’s biggest recruiting victories since joining the Big 12 will finally get on campus this month.
Tight end Jackson Bowers, running back LJ Martin and wide receiver JoJo Phillips will all go through their first fall camp. On defense, the aforementioned Taggart and edge rusher Siale Esera are in Provo for the first time too.
When each of these players committed, it signaled BYU was being more competitive on the recruiting trail thanks to a new Power Five affiliation. They also became future foundational pieces for the program’s next competitive team in the Big 12.
So this camp will be the initial evaluation to see what that future might look like, and how fast it could arrive.
Out of the incoming group, Bowers is probably the most ready to contribute meaningful snaps in year one. He is 6-foot-5 and listed at 245 pounds. Physically, he could slide right into Aaron Roderick’s system and not miss a beat.
But don’t discount Taggart from getting some time. He went through one season in Oregon after coming off a Church of Latter-day Saints mission. It would be slightly unexpected for him to start right away at linebacker — seeing as there are plenty of more experienced options. But if BYU is struggling in the middle of the year, it wouldn’t be a shock for Hill to turn to Taggart. Esera also has the size to play at 6-3 and 245 pounds.
Overall, though, this camp isn’t about a younger core fighting for time. It is more about seeing if BYU evaluated correctly and how this group looks at the college level.
3. New playmakers on offense
If there is a case to be made that BYU can get to a bowl game in year one of the Big 12, it largely hinges on Roderick’s offense.
The defense is retooling and has more questions than answers. BYU’s offense has been highly productive and will have the depth that more closely resembles a Big 12 unit.
That said, it is not like Roderick doesn’t have anything to do this fall. He has plenty of new skill position players he’ll need to get acquainted with. And that doesn’t include a new quarterback in Kedon Slovis.
This camp will be the first time BYU fully sees running back Aidan Robbins (UNLV). He was hurt in spring and couldn’t participate in live drills. Plus, transfer wide receivers Keelan Marion (UConn) and Darius Lassiter (Eastern Michigan) joined the fold after spring camp. Colorado running back Deion Smith is new to the unit, too.
Roderick will use August to figure out where these new additions fit in his system. It also could be an opportunity to expand on what BYU does. For example, Smith is the kind of pass-catching back that BYU didn’t have last year. Roderick has used running backs in the passing game before, but got away from it in 2022. It could be time to see more of that this season.
4. Position battles playing out
We will spend plenty of time monitoring position battles over the next month. But there are three spots that are most significant.
Offensive line has several new additions, including Oklahoma State transfer Caleb Etienne and Utah transfer Paul Maile. The mixing and matching offensive line coach Darrell Funk has to do this fall will have significant implications for the offense. Will Maile take over the snapping duties at center? BYU returned center Connor Pay from last year, but he can play multiple spots on the line. Pay said he would like to stay where he is, but Maile might be the better option.
Linebacker is also a position in flux. Tooley and Bywater are the stakeholders at the position. But after that, BYU could go in multiple directions. It brought in Vongphachanh to be the third starter. But the Cougars also have a youth movement going on. Isaiah Glasker, Ace Kaufusi and Maiki Kaufusi are all the future of the position and fit the prototypical linebacker Hill wants. Could BYU try to get them some playing time for the future? Taggart might force his way in there, too.
Wide receiver is also a spot that might make some waves. Kody Epps, Keanu Hill and Chase Roberts are all back from last year. But with as many new additions at that spot, who knows what the rotation will look like by the time camp breaks?
5. What changes will Sitake make?
You have to zoom out for this one, but it is worth noting. Will Sitake change his approach to fall camp now that BYU is in the Big 12?
It is a different schedule BYU is facing. It will play 10 Power Five teams in succession.
In spring we already saw Sitake adopt more live hitting than in 2022. It is something to keep tabs on as Sitake evolves as a Power Five head coach. Even though Sitake has been at the helm for seven seasons, in many ways this year might feel like he’s starting over.

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