COUGAR TRACKS

Five Burning Questions For BYU Football’s First Spring As Big 12 Team

Mar 5, 2023, 3:40 PM | Updated: 3:42 pm

BYU Football, Jay Hill...

BYU football defensive coordinator Jay Hill is in his first year with the Cougars. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

(Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

PROVO, Utah – Despite the snowy conditions in Utah, BYU football spring practice is ready to kick off.

It will be the first set of practices for BYU as a member of the Big 12 Conference. They officially join the league on July 1, 2023, but all preparations are gearing up for a season with 10 games against Power Five opposition.

Knowing that BYU is part of the exclusive Power Five club makes this spring historic.

There is no shortage of storylines for Kalani Sitake as he gears up for his eighth season at the helm.

BYU spring practices run from March 6 until April 14, 2023. In addition, there will be a spring game for fans to attend on Friday, March 31, at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Here are some burning questions I have for BYU football entering spring ball.

How does Big 12 membership change the intensity of practice?

It might sound like a strange question, but for a place like BYU, they’ve waited for the moment to be in the P5 for decades. The other newcomers, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston, have had previous stints in autonomous leagues. BYU never has.

It’s all new to BYU football. So how much does that fact ratchet up the intensity of these 15 practices?

For starters, the practices should be competitive, with everyone wanting to ensure they have a roster spot heading into the fall. Once July 1 hits, scholarships become four-year “guaranteed” agreements for the players.

In the past, BYU was outside of the Power Five, which allowed them to have scholarships be year-by-year agreements with the players. When it was a year-by-year scholarship, it would create flexibility to make cuts or have honest conversations with players about where they stood on the depth chart. It would then lead to entries into the Transfer Portal or opportunities on campus if football were no longer in the cards.

That flexibility will be gone for coaches once July 1 rolls around. Being a Power Five program forces BYU to provide those guaranteed four-year agreements.

So after the spring, with another Transfer Portal widow around the corner in May, players should compete like crazy in these practices to guarantee they will be part of the 123-man roster in the fall.

What changes will Jay Hill bring to practice?

BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill is a high-energy coach. That should be one of the fun things to watch over the next six weeks. Hill has a strong presence when he walks into a room, and he commands your attention with his loud voice.

During the New Mexico Bowl prep, he and some of his defensive coaches had the chance to evaluate personnel and get familiar with their families. But this will be Hill’s first chance to implement the new defensive scheme and show how he coaches.

Twenty years ago, former BYU coach Gary Crowton brought in a high-energy defensive coordinator named Bronco Mendenhall to lead a struggling defensive unit. Mendenhall left an impression on everyone during the first day of spring ball with his whacky 3-3-5 scheme and his coaching style. He was running around in shorts in sub-freezing temperatures, going through drills with players, and was loud.

You knew it was a different attitude and vibe from that moment with BYU’s defense.

Jay Hill doesn’t have to worry about freezing temperatures as BYU has a spacious Indoor Practice Facility to operate in, but the opening of spring can be a tone-setter. During difficult times, Mendenhall’s defense made incremental progress in his two years as defensive coordinator. It eventually led to him being the head coach.

Hill has an opportunity to change the narrative and vibes around this defense. He didn’t shy away on Signing Day when asked if the defense was “Big 12-ready?” He said, “No, not yet.” But the foundation of the new-look defense and the attitude behind it can be established this spring.

Hill inherits a defense that struggled against everyone last year. But the New Mexico Bowl win over a high-powered SMU offense showed flashes of the toughness of this group.

The nuances of Hill’s defense will also be an area of focus. Having come from the coaching tree of Kyle Whittingham, a four-man front is assumed, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this be a multiple scheme that looks to attack opponents in various ways.

How comfortable is Kedon Slovis with the offense?

USC/Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis was Aaron Roderick’s number-one quarterback target in the Transfer Portal. Slovis’ Christmas Eve commitment was a big boost for a BYU offense moving forward without two-year starter Jaren Hall.

Slovis arrived at BYU in early January and was motivated to learn everything he could about Roderick’s offense. The four-year Power Five quarterback has started in 38 games during his career. So there’s no shortage of experience in his career.

 

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A post shared by Kedon Slovis (@kedonslovis)

Along with Slovis, there are a lot of new faces in key positions within the offense. What will the comfort level be within BYU’s offense for Slovis?

It’s likely a work in progress, but I’m sure coaches would love nothing more than for Slovis to plug into the offense and not skip a beat like the two signal-callers before him at BYU. Slovis has NFL potential. But it’s still potential at this point. A clean bill of health should help his cause to return to the quarterback we saw in 2019 and the COVID year in 2020.

A lot of attention will center around Slovis during spring practices as he is on the track to be BYU’s first starting QB in the Big 12 era.

Which position unit exceeds expectations during spring?

My hot take entering spring ball is that BYU’s defensive line will be one of the most improved position groups. They can’t get much worse from last season. Expectations will be low for this group, so I’m buying the potential of this group at an opportunistic time.

Part of this prediction is the track records of Kelly Poppinga, who will be coaching the defensive ends, and Sione Po’uha with the interior linemen. Plus, the coaching staff maintained Jan Jorgensen as an analyst to continue his work with this group. But also the personnel BYU has along the defensive in 2023.

Tyler Batty projects to be the leader of the group and potentially the entire defense. Batty has made an early impression on the defensive coaches during winter conditioning. Along with Batty at defensive end, there’s Blake Mangelson and heralded redshirt freshman Bodie Schoonover.

At the outside edge spot, Boise State transfer Isaiah Bagnah will be looked upon to provide an immediate impact as a pass rusher. Then there’s a pair of intriguing redshirt freshmen Aisea “Ice” Moa and Michael Daley, that have the makings to be significant contributors this season.

Another name to keep an eye out for along the defensive end spot is Weber State walk-on transfer Nuuletau Sellesin. He could be a travel roster player this fall.

Along the interior, John Nelson, Caden Haws, and Atunaisa Mahe are proven commodities within the BYU program. Plus, you add Boise State transfer Jackson Cravens.

Joshua Larsen was a player the previous defensive staff had big expectations for last year, but he suffered a season-ending injury in September. He will be one to monitor how available he is during spring ball.

A majority of these players aren’t household names but don’t be surprised if they make some noise during spring practices.

Which recruits line up visits to BYU during the spring?

As important as the practices are during spring, these 15 practices are a hotbed for recruits to roll through Provo. Last year, BYU had signee Ethan Thomasson pay a visit. The star offensive tackle in BYU’s 2023 class got to see firsthand how coach Darrell Funk operated. While Funk coached up his linemen, he was giving pointers and insight to Thomasson. In the rigors of the fall season, you don’t have that luxury. But in spring, you can do that.

BYU football even had heralded QB Jaden Rashada, who, after some NIL drama at Florida, is now off to Arizona State.

Spring has proven to be a time to get some heavy hitters on the recruiting trail to see how BYU operates up close and in person.

Four-star tight end Ryner Swanson in the 2024 class from Laguna Beach, California, has a visit lined up for Provo to see BYU’s spring game on March 31. Other schools he’s visiting include Colorado, Georgia, Auburn, Texas, and Utah.

Recruiting as a Big 12 program becomes an around-the-clock deal. Getting in the mix for high-profile recruits is key if BYU wants to one day win a Big 12 Championship. So watching to see who takes visit to Provo will be an important piece to watch over the next few weeks.

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Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the 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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Five Burning Questions For BYU Football’s First Spring As Big 12 Team