BYU’s starting linebackers are missing spring practice — and that might be a good thing

Veterans Ben Bywater, Max Tooley and Chaz Ah You are all sitting out of spring due to injury.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Linebackers coach Justin Ena and special team coordinator Kelly Poppinga at BYU football practice in Provo on Monday, March 6, 2023.

Provo • When new BYU linebackers coach Justin Ena is seen on the sidelines during spring practices, it is a bit of an experience.

After some plays, he will be excitedly high-fiving players. At other times, he will have his hands on his knees with a look of exasperation. At his lowest moments, he is just stoically staring into space.

That is what happens when you are going through spring practice with a bunch of freshmen. It is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of experience. Trial by fire.

“It hasn’t been bad,” Ena said with a smile. “But you get growing pains. You have to pull your hair out once in a while. But you also get that natural experience through the tough times.”

BYU’s linebacker room is all young right now. With established players like Max Tooley, Ben Bywater and Chaz Ah You all sitting out of spring camp due to injury, BYU is forced to play a series of freshmen. Many of them haven’t touched a college field. It’s not ideal, Ena admits, but it is giving the Cougars at least a chance to focus on development.

And after two weeks of spring practice, there are two younger players who have taken advantage of the situation the most by Ena’s assessment: Ace and Maiki Kaufusi. Both joined the team in January, but both have the potential to be immediate impact players.

This rare window where they can take the majority of the reps has sped up the process.

“Those guys look really good right now,” new defensive coordinator Jay Hill said. “It is probably unfair to single too many of them out. But those guys have made plays. It is a major competition right now to see who rises to the top.”

In Hill’s new defense, the Kaufusis’ style of play might actually match the scheme better than some linebackers on the current roster.

Going into the Big 12, Ena said he is prioritizing linebackers who can cover space in pass coverage. In a pass-heavy league, BYU can’t afford to have linebackers who can’t at least help in coverage.

Hill added that his ideal mold for a linebacker is a Fred Warner type of player. Warner, a former BYU player and now an All-Pro linebacker for the 49ers, has made a living being highly effective in pass coverage.

And in order to be that type of guy, Ena said, he is looking for length. Ace Kaufusi is listed at 6-foot-3. Maiki Kaufusi is 6-foot-4.

“My linebackers have to have the ability to play in space. They have to be athletic,” Ena said. “But that fits well with a lot of the guys on the roster. We have players who are 6-4, 6-3, who are very rangy. I think that is going to fit in the Big 12 style of play.

“You still have to go downhill. But this game has changed. It is kind of fast-break football. They have to be smart players. And make the play in space.”

The pathway for the Kaufusis to log significant snaps as freshmen still includes putting on weight once spring is over. Both are listed at 210 pounds. By comparison, Bywater is 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. But, according to Ena, that pathway does exist for them to contribute year one.

“Their heads are spinning right now somewhat with a new defense,” Ena said. “But they have shown just great process. Got to get some weight on them and learn the defense.”

Outside of the Kaufusi’s, another younger player who fits the new linebacker scheme is redshirt freshman Isaiah Glasker. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he has the measurables.

“Glasker has been playing extremely well,” Bywater said. “The days of being a big, 260-pound linebacker are gone. Gotta be able to run and go sideline to sideline, be physical. ... That is just the day and age we are in. Passing and playing in space.”

For now, Ena said he could see playing all three younger players alongside Bywater, Tooley and Ah You when they return. Still, much of it depends on their spring development.

But, as Ena joked, they won’t have much of a choice but to develop this spring. He has to throw them into the fire. Sure, that will inevitably mean more days of Ena pulling out his hair. It is a tradeoff he is willing to take.

“I am hoping we can get five or six guys in the two-deep, and just get them rotating really well,” Ena finished. “If my guys are stars, I’m not going to pull them out. If I can get a two-deep, or maybe even if a 2.5 or three-deep, that would be huge. A lot of it depends on these young guys progressing.”