BYU football hires Weber State’s Jay Hill as defensive coordinator, Kelly Poppinga returns
At first glance, Jay Hill may not seem like the obvious choice to be the new defensive coordinator and associate head coach for the BYU football team.
After all, unlike some of the other names that were discussed, Hill didn’t play for the Cougars (his college career took him to Ricks College [now BYU-Idaho] and the University of Utah) and has never coached in Provo.
But while the Lehi native may not have ever worn the blue-and-white as an official representative of the university until he got his new job this week, he was quick to point out that he already has a strong emotional connection to BYU.
“It’s kind of weird to come back,” Hill said in Wednesday’s introductory press teleconference. “I grew up in Lehi and my parents went to BYU. I grew up a BYU fan and I remember as a child going to football games in Lavell Edwards Stadium. My dad was a basketball fan. We’d go regularly to the Marriott Center and watch BYU basketball games. I remember having posters of BYU players in my room hanging up. It’s kind of weird how life brings you full circle.”
Sitake officially announced the addition of Hill and former Cougar player and coach Kelly Poppinga to his coaching staff on Wednesday, beginning the process of reorganizing after the departures of Ilaisa Tuiaki and Ed Lamb.
Sitake and Hill worked closely during their time under Kyle Whittingham at Utah, and they hope that background and friendship will make the transition relatively smooth.
“I’m really excited for this moment,” Sitake said. “I’m excited to work with him again. He’s a local product from Lehi, so he’s a Utah County boy. I had the honor of working with him at Utah for nine years and seeing the things that he did there. We speak the same language when it comes to defensive football. Looking at his career, I’ve been really impressed with what he’s done. But I’ve also seen firsthand the things that he’s done and the knowledge that he has about all three phases of the game. We’re really fired up for the opportunity to work together again.”
For the last nine years, Hill has been the head coach at Weber State where he led the Wildcats to considerable success including a run to the FCS semifinals in 2019. He said it wasn’t an easy decision to choose to take a new position.
“It was extremely difficult,” Hill said. “At some point, you’ve got to go tell your team that you’re moving on. Those were players that I loved. Those were assistant coaches that had given their lives to us, so to make that change was difficult. On the flip side, however, it was easy in that I had the opportunity to work with Kalani again. With my respect with for him and the program that he’s built and everything, I believe in what he’s doing here. That made it much easier. The excitement of what we can continue to build is exciting to me.”
Sitake said Hill was “definitely” atop his list of coaches he was targeting for the job.
“Going into the Big 12 Conference, it’s about taking care of your program, but also take care of your players,” Sitake said. “You have to do everything you can as a program to function and that means attracting high-level players and also high-level coaches. Jay is a high-level coach. I’ve been able to work with him in the past. He’s a great evaluator and an amazing recruiter. He’s got this great presence that’s really hard to explain.”
Both Sitake and Hill were at Utah when the Utes made the transition from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12, experience that should be valuable as BYU now moves from independence to the Big 12.
“I think it’s awesome,” Hill said. “It’s exciting for the fans. It’s exciting for the coaches and super-exciting for the players. The level of competition is going to be absolutely outstanding. One of the things that was so intriguing about coming to BYU is this transition into the Big 12. Kalani and I both got to go through that when Utah did it, so it’s something that we’re both familiar with. It comes down to coaching as hard as you can, having great players — which I believe we have — and just giving it your all.”
Sitake and Hill said they are working to evaluate the roles for the defensive staff. Poppinga is on board and Sitake said the plan is to retain Jernaro Gilford as well, but Hill said Preston Hadley and Kevin Clune are still being “considered.”
“Everybody’s in consideration right now and we’re just moving forward on exactly what that looks like,” Hill said. “We’re going to be making sure we get the best fits for the program. That’s going to be a big deal, who’s going to do the best job coaching the current players and then also who’s going to do phenomenal job going out recruiting and then putting those pieces in place.”
Recruiting is also a huge task, especially with the transfer portal window open. More than 3,000 FBS players entered the transfer portal during the 2021-22 cycle and many expect at least that many to look for new opportunities this year.
“I’m looking forward to assessing the players who are currently here first,” Hill said. “Obviously they get the first chance at anything we’re doing because they’re already here and they deserve that. But know that this is a neverending cycle in college football. Recruiting never stops with the transfer portal and everything that’s going on. Kalani and I will work tirelessly to have the best players on the field, ones that the fans can be super excited about. I’m excited about getting on the road and recruiting with this current staff because I know what BYU has to offer and I know there’s going to be a ton of great players.”
Those, however, are mostly tasks for the offseason and BYU still has a game against SMU in the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque on Dec. 17. Since Hill is coming on board just a week-and-a-half before the game, Sitake said he will spearhead the defense while still getting input and analysis from Hill.
“Jay is going to be evaluating talent and focusing on fundamentals and technique,” Sitake said. “He’s got knowledge, so it would be foolish of me not to ask him to share his expertise on the defense and special teams. But this game, good or bad, is going to be riding on me and my calls.”
Jay Hill bio
- 22 years coaching experience
- Nine years as head coach at Weber State (68-39 record)
- Eight straight winning seasons
- Six FCS playoff berths
- Reached FCS semifinals in 2019
- Four Big Sky Conference titles
- Coached 16 players to 26 All-American honors
- University of Utah assistant coach (2005-13)
- University of Utah graduate and administrative assistant (2001-04)
- Played in the XFL and signed free agent contracts with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants
- Cornerback for the University of Utah (1998-99)
- Cornerback for Ricks College
- Earned bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 2000 from Utah and completed his master’s degree in ESS/Sports Psychology in 2005
- Family includes his wife Sara and four children: Ashtyn, Alayna, Allie and Jacob