BYU linebacker Ben Bywater overcame his own injury last year, primed himself to be next man up

Redshirt freshman takes over for Keenan Pili, who is out for the season.

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater (33) will take on a starting role after the team's leading tackler, Keenan Pili, suffered a season-ending knee injury. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate)

As a junior at Olympus High School, Ben Bywater sat out the majority of his football season due to a lacerated kidney. At first, the linebacker thought it would affect his chances at playing in college, but BYU staff got creative.

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki remembers coaches looked at Bywater’s rugby film, which led to the Salt Lake City native’s first offer.

“I’m familiar with the game of rugby,” Tuiaki said. “There’s a skill set that you look for with certain players and then he was a phenomenal running back when he had film, playing football. He was a tall athlete that could run and that’s really, when we’re recruiting, that’s one of the things that we’re looking at.”

Now, Bywater is set to start the remainder of the season as he steps in for injured Cougar Keenan Pili.

Pili tore his ACL during the third quarter of the Cougars’ win over Arizona State on Saturday night and will undergo surgery within a couple of weeks. He is out for the remainder of the season.

The mentality “next man up” has and will continue to be BYU’s philosophy.

During the offseason, the Cougars touted depth as one of their best strengths heading into the 2021 season. Through three games, that’s already been tested a bit.

But Pili’s injury was the first to be declared to be season-ending. As one of the captains of the team, it’s seen as a big loss.

Pili was the team’s leading tackler. Now, he is being replaced by someone slightly unfamiliar to BYU fans, as Bywater has played in only nine games over the past three seasons.

However, that shouldn’t mean anything.

Bywater got a start in the season opener against Arizona in place of Max Tooley, who was out with his own injury and has been primed to take this role.

“We have a lot of guys that have been here and been in the system for a while,” Tooley said. “... We feel confident with whoever is willing to step in.”

After redshirting the 2019 season, Bywater sat out the majority of the 2020 season after tearing his posterior labrum.

While some athletes can continue to play through the injury, Bywater found that his shoulder would slip out of the socket each time he’d even touch someone.

But he’s grateful for the injury. It allowed the redshirt freshman to take the time to get his body in better shape and have an even better offseason.

“It really set me back on the path that I needed to be on,” Bywater said. “I mean, it was great. I was able to lock in film, I was able to get my body weight up and I was able to do a body recomp and get myself right for the season. And that really sparked my confidence going into Game 1 and getting that start against Arizona.

“I’m very confident going into this Saturday. … Obviously [the loss of] Keenan is going to be a huge blow, but I’m excited for all the boys. I think we’ll be able to take care of the job.”

For Tuiaki, the way Bywater was able to recover from his injury and build up his body was reminiscent of Pili’s recovery from a previous shoulder injury. He saw Bywater put the work in during the offseason and earn the new role.

“Now we’re going to need him to step up,” Tuiaki said. “I know he’s ready for the challenge. Keenan’s going to be alongside him the whole way to help out and coach him up and do all those things. But Ben certainly deserves and earned the right to step in and try to fill in for Keenan.”

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