What can Jay Hill do for BYU’s defense? It’s the story of the opener, maybe the season

BYU Cougars football defensive coordinator Jay Hill talks to journalists after practice in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Hill will make his debut in Provo Saturday in the Cougars’ opener against Sam Houston.
BYU Cougars football defensive coordinator Jay Hill talks to journalists after practice in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Hill will make his debut in Provo Saturday in the Cougars’ opener against Sam Houston. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It is the most intriguing thing about BYU’s season opener on Saturday against Sam Houston in LaVell Edwards Stadium: Jay Hill, defensive coordinator and associate head coach.

Hill, and what he does with BYU’s defense this season, is the primary story of the program heading into membership in the Big 12.

While the Sam Houston game may not give a complete tale of the tape for what Hill is trying to accomplish, it definitely is a curious attraction.

What’s the scheme?

What does it look like?

How aggressive is it?

How does it adjust against an offense from possession to possession and at halftime?

How many forced turnovers will there be?

How will the players react to all the changes Hill implements? How will they perform? What depth surfaces?

How good are new acquisitions like linebacker AJ Vongphachanh, corner Eddie Heckard and others?

How much of an impact has Hill, Kelly Poppinga, Justin Ena and Sione Po’uha had on BYU defensive fundamentals — basic things like tackling and controlling the edge, stopping the run?

Hill is an interesting guy. He exudes confidence. His track record coaching at Utah and Weber State shows his knowledge is high-level, as is his ability to impart what he knows.

It’s just a compelling story. A local kid from Lehi comes to Provo. A guy who played and coached at Utah and now has dedicated his professional life to getting BYU’s defense to reach the potential he believes is there.

What’s it all going to look like — even against Sam Houston?

Hill explained on BYUtv’s “Coordinator’s Corner” Monday that what folks will see is what he learned was important coaching with Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, a disciple of his father Fred, who helped BYU create some of its best defenses ever back in the early ’80s.

“It’s all about being gap sound and being aggressive,” said Hill. “I think the way he likes to blitz is the way I do. It’s a similar philosophy of putting players in a position where they can be successful and it is critical to defensive football. You have to have the right pieces, so you have to be good recruiters and get the right guys in the right places. Those are things (head coach) Kalani (Sitake) and I see eye-to-eye on.”


Whether Hill has the right pieces to do what he wants to do in 2023 is another engaging mystery to this game.

If you were to single out what to look for in Hill’s defense, the first would be to look at tackling, the art of the takedown, which involves confident aggression and physicality.

Second, and it should stand out either way, is gap control.

Hill said he does not want a vagueness to exist in post-game film reviews about who should have been where, when or why. He senses last year’s team had a scheme and philosophy that the linebackers would fill in depending on what the defensive line was doing. He wants linebackers to be “way more aggressive” in attacking gaps, perhaps without hesitation or thinking, but with decisive action that is productive.

“I want to know what happened and it was this guy’s mistake or he did a really good job. I don’t want vagueness in what we’re doing and so you’ll see those guys much more assignment sound, much more definitive in what they’re doing and in what they’re seeing.”

I took this to mean Hill wants his defensive line and linebackers to do less guessing and show more exactness in who is supposed to fill gaps along the line. When there is blame or praise due, he will make sure there’s accountability.

In other words, you can’t just shuck off mistakes as a player, accepting unclear, nebulous play, which is the opposite of precision.

Hill wants to limit opponents to under 120 yards rushing and have the opposing QB efficiency rating around 100. “If you allow more than 120 rushing and the QB has an efficiency rating of 150, you probably lost the game.”

A year ago, we saw a lot of performances — granted, with young players due to injuries — that looked awkward, confused and anything but precise.

Yes, this will be an interesting debut.

We’ll know right away just how Hill’s work has paid off.

It won’t be fully interpreted until Fayetteville, but you will likely be able to get a read and a feeling of what he’s been up to with BYU’s defenders, even against Sam Houston.

BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill watches players during BYU spring camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility.
Jay Hill, BYU associate head coach, defensive coordinator and safeties coach, watches players practice during opening day of BYU spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo, on Monday, March 6, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News