Kalani Sitake Shares Why Former Utah Coaches Fill His BYU Staff

Feb 6, 2023, 11:46 AM | Updated: 11:51 am
BYU Football, Kalani Sitake, Kyle Whittingham...
BYU football will have six former Utah coaches, including Kalani Sitake, on their staff in 2023. (Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)
(Mengshin Lin, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – BYU football will have a different look in 2023. The most significant change is being a member of the Big 12 Conference. Another important difference from last season is the coaching staff.

After finishing 94th in total defense last season, Sitake overhauled the defensive staff. The coaches are new except for cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford, but they are well-versed in major college football around the state of Utah.

Kelly Poppinga was a former player and assistant coach at BYU before following Bronco Mendenhall to Virginia, then a one-year stop at Boise State. The other three coaches, including defensive coordinator Jay Hill, built their coaching resumes at the University of Utah.

Hill, Justin Ena, and Sione Po’uha all coached for the Utes and worked under Kyle Whittingham. A path BYU head coach Kalani Sitake knows well as he spent 10 seasons on the Hill.

BYU has six former Utah coaches on the staff

With the additions of Hill, Ena, and Po’uha, BYU football now has six former Utah assistants on the staff. The other three are Sitake, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, and tight ends coach Steve Clark.

How did Sitake end up with so many former Utah coaches on his revamped staff entering the Big 12? In a recent interview with DJ & PK on the KSL Sports Zone, he was asked that question.

“There’s been some great coaches that have been around [the University of Utah],” said Sitake on the KSL Sports Zone.

Sitake was a defensive coordinator for Whittingham at Utah from 2009 to 2014, then two years later, he was the head coach at BYU.

“Everybody knows how I feel about Kyle Whittingham and how I have tons of gratitude towards him. He’s got a great defensive mind, and he was able to share that with so many different people,” Sitake said. “So I’m glad that he was a mentor to me, Jay [Hill], and to others. We all speak the same language.”

Whittingham has become an institution at the University of Utah for his program’s excellent defenses for nearly 30 years. The Utes have won back-to-back Pac-12 Championships the last two seasons.

Influence traces back to Fred Whittingham

Whittingham inherited much of his defensive blueprint from his father, the late Fred Whittingham. As a result, the former BYU and Utah defensive coordinator, who worked under LaVell Edwards impacted nearly all of BYU’s coaches.

“You think about when Kyle’s dad, ‘Big Fred,’ when he was coaching here at BYU; he had some of that influence and impact that even spread out to Ken Schmidt. And Ken Schmidt had been able to teach and coach Justin Ena back in the day. That even goes back to Jernaro Gilford. So, all of these guys are from that tree that comes from Kyle and comes from Big Fred. It works. Hopefully, we can get that stuff rolling here, and our fans will be able to see the defense that they want to see.”

It’s easier said than done because BYU is joining a Big 12 Conference that knows how to light up the scoreboard. Nine of the 10 teams in the Big 12 last season averaged 30 points per game. The top four averaged more than 34, with National Runner-Up TCU leading the way at 38.8 points.

“It’s going to be hard because there’s a lot of great offenses out there. But we feel like we’re speaking the same language, things can move a lot quicker here, and we can get the right guys in the right places to make plays.”

2023 BYU Football Coaching Staff

Head Coach: Kalani Sitake (8th season)

Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator: Jay Hill (1st season)

Offensive Coordinator: Aaron Roderick (6th season)

Special Teams Coordinator/DEs: Kelly Poppinga (1st season, 8th overall)

Passing Game Coordinator/WRs: Fesi Sitake (6th season)

Tight Ends: Steve Clark (8th season)

Linebackers: Justin Ena (1st season)

Offensive Line: Darrell Funk (3rd season)

Cornerbacks: Jernaro Gilford (8th season)

Defensive Tackles: Sione Po’uha (1st season)

Running Backs: Harvey Unga (4th season)

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for and hoMitch’she Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU moving to the Big 12 Conference on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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Kalani Sitake Shares Why Former Utah Coaches Fill His BYU Staff