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Cougar Sports Roundtable: Expectations For BYU Defense In 2024, Next Super Bowl Champ?

Feb 12, 2024, 4:34 PM

The Cougar Sports Roundtable is a weekly BYU football, basketball, and athletics feature on KSL Sports with KSL NewsRadio’s Cougar Sports Saturday team of BYU Insider Mitch HarperMatt Baiamonte, and Nate Slack. You can listen to them on Saturdays from Noon to 3 p.m. on 102.7 FM, 1160 AM, or On-Demand on the Cougar Sports Saturday podcast.

PROVO, Utah – It’s time for another week of the Cougar Sports Roundtable.

This week’s three questions center around BYU in the NFL after the Kansas City Chiefs claim another Super Bowl victory.

Then we look at Jay Hill’s BYU football defense in 2024 and thoughts on Mark Pope changing the starting five for the win over Kansas State.

Andy Reid is a Super Bowl Champion again. Taking away the Chiefs dynasty, who could be the next individual in the NFL with BYU football ties to win a Super Bowl?

Matt Baiamonte: I believe it will be a former BYU linebacker.

Fred Warner is still in a great position with the 49ers. Although another Super Bowl loss is painful for San Francisco, they still have more talent on the roster than most NFL teams.

Brock Purdy proved he is a legit NFL starting quarterback. The 49ers still have Christian McCaffrey, Trent Williams, Deebo Samuel, and others under contract next season. They’ll be the favorites to get back to the Super Bowl, and rightfully so.

Let’s not count out another Super Bowl ring for Kyle Van Noy if he resigns with the Baltimore Ravens. They’ll be favored to win their division and get back to playoffs. The biggest obstacle for Van Noy, if he returns, will be the talent in the AFC. That conference is absolutely stacked.

Nate Slack: I’m with Matt. I think it’s Fred Warner. San Francisco has been in two of the last five Super Bowls and probably would’ve made it last year if Brock Purdy hadn’t torn his UCL in the NFC Championship. Maybe Puka Nacua and the Ram make a run next year, but I’d still put my money on the 49ers.

Mitch Harper: My pick is going to be QB Zach Wilson. I say that because I believe he will end up with a Super Bowl contender as a backup quarterback this offseason. Leaving the dysfunctional Jets franchise can’t happen soon enough for Wilson.

Jay Hill earned high praise for his work on the recruiting trail in the 2024 cycle. What are your expectations for the BYU football defense in year two under Hill?

Matt Baiamonte: I’d like to see BYU football rank in the middle of the Big 12 for total defense this season. If they can do that, I think it’s a step in the right direction for Jay Hill.

The recruiting class was full of talent on the defensive side of the ball. However, assuming several true freshman will elevate this defense to another level is unrealistic. It takes time to develop freshmen into all-conference caliber players.

Example: Jakob Robinson. He didn’t step onto the field as a lockdown corner in his first year at BYU. It’s taken a few years to get him at the level he played last season.

The one area of improvement that will be sorely needed is turnovers. BYU desperately needs the defense in year two under Hill to be better at forcing turnovers.

Nate Slack: I’ve got high expectations for this year’s defense. It was huge news when Tyler Batty announced he was coming back, and I think it’s also big to get Micah Harper and Ben Bywater coming back from injury. Even though the numbers don’t show much improvement defensively from 2022 to 2023, it sure felt a lot better.

The production dipped for a few games in the middle of the year, but by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, I feel like the defense was creating opportunities to win.

BYU football will miss Max Tooley and AJ Vongphachanh this year. Still, I’m excited to see how Harrison Taggart, Isaiah Glasker, Ace Kaufusi and Siale Esera look in spring ball at linebacker. It’s not easy to come in and contribute as freshmen, and now that they have a feel for college football, I’m anxious to see them in year two.

I’m hopeful the defense can be one of the top three or four in the Big 12 this year. If that happens, BYU will have to find a way to retain Jay Hill because schools will come after him.

Mitch Harper: BYU football needs to be a Top Four defense next season in the Big 12. The offense has a lot of questions at quarterback, so the defense needs to be lights out next year.

It might be a year where the defense needs to win games for BYU. So they better be ready to play at a high level.

Last year’s defense allowed 34.6 points per game in Big 12 play. If they want to be a Top Four total defense this year, they probably need to give up less than 28 points per game. It’s easier said than done, but they have better personnel to achieve that lofty goal.

I like the options at the defensive end spot, with Tyler Batty leading the way. Boise State transfer Isaiah Bagnah has to take a big step forward this season. An underrated player last year was Blake Mangelson. He returns for his senior campaign.

The newcomers at defensive end are intriguing, with JUCO transfer Sani Tuala leading the group. Former Oregon State signee Orion Maile-Kaufusi has joined as a preferred walk-on. Also, former Snow College transfer John Taumoepeau and freshmen Viliami Pou’ha and Kini Fonohema will be enrolled this season.

Then you return Logan Lutui, Aisea Moa, Bodie Schoonover, and Nuuletau Sellesin. You have to think they will hit on a couple of these defensive ends.

The defensive tackle spot is lighter in terms of depth, but the return of John Nelson will be significant for this group. I’m intrigued to see what Springville High signee Dallin Johnson can do this spring.

Is BYU Basketball finally set on its rotation after the win over Kansas State?

Matt Baiamonte: I loved the starting lineup change against Kansas State. Specifically, re-inserting Trevin Knell back into the lineup.

He wasn’t nearly as effective off the bench. At the same time, Jaxson Robinson has proven to be the same player in a starting role versus coming off the bench.

It’s important to get some three-point shooting from Knell going forward. The other change was having Aly Khalifa back into the starting lineup instead of Fousseyni Traore.

Like Robinson, Traore can be effective off the bench as a change-of-pace post-player.

At the end of the day, Robinson and Traore will likely close most games. Those guys deliver when it matters. I think it was smart to see if you can get Knell and others going early, and if it doesn’t work, Coach Pope can quickly turn to the bench.

Nate Slack: Like Matt, I love putting Trevin Knell back into the starting lineup and bringing Jaxson Robinson off the bench. Knell still seems to be working his way back from the foot injury he suffered a few weeks ago, but BYU has a real advantage in bringing Fousseyni Traore and Robinson in off the bench. The contrast in how the offense plays when Fouss is in and how it plays when Aly Khalifa is in must be hard to prepare for, especially when it’s essentially the opponents’ bench guys against two of BYU’s most effective players in Fouss and Robinson.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see Trey Stewart return to the floor. He is one of BYU’s best defenders, and if he can come in for seven to eight minutes a game to give Dallin Hall some rest, I think that’s a win. BYU has one of the best benches in the conference.

Being able to rely on four to five guys outside of your starting five to come in and impact the game on both ends of the floor is what I feel will make BYU a dangerous team next month.

Mitch Harper: I’m with you guys; I liked the change.

Mark Pope has done an excellent job creating a rotation featuring eight guys who could start any night. It will allow BYU to occasionally reinvent itself and catch a league opponent off guard with how they plan to attack BYU.

Imagine if BYU reached a point where Khalifa and Traore could play on the floor together. Mark Pope said a couple of weeks ago that they’ve only had a handful of reps in practice this season with those two on the floor simultaneously.

If they can stay healthy, plus the sudden rise of Trey Stewart –who has practiced at a high level the past two weeks–, BYU’s depth is in a great spot as March begins to peek around the corner.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and hosts the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s’ coverage of BYU in the Big 12 Conference on X: @Mitch_Harper.

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Cougar Sports Roundtable: Expectations For BYU Defense In 2024, Next Super Bowl Champ?