BYU Soccer: How Healthy Are Linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar?

It’s well-documented that key player injuries dampened BYU’s 2021 football season as the Cougars limped toward the finish line in November and lost 31-28 to UAB in the Independence Bowl in December.

Linebackers Keenan Pili, Payton Wilgar and Chaz Ah You, tight end Isaac Rex and even starting quarterback Jaren Hall missed the bowl game.

During BYU Football Media Day Wednesday at the BYU Broadcasting Building, coaches and the players themselves — with the exception of Ah You — gave updates on their recovery as “the season feels like it’s just around the corner,” according to head coach Kalani Sitake .

“If we can (stay healthy) I think we’ll have a good chance of a good season. Part of getting our guys ready and providing good depth is making sure we’re healthy. So far when I go to this camp I think we will be in a really good place. – BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

In general, the reports have been favourable. Barring any unforeseen setbacks or new injuries, BYU should start fall camp on August 3 in full force.

“If we can do that, I think we’ll have a good chance of a good season,” Sitake said of the recoveries. “Part of preparing our guys and providing good depth is making sure we are healthy. So far when I go to this camp I think we will be in a really good place.

Some guys who missed the entire 2021 season, like cornerback Micah Harper, attended the Spring Ball in March and are also ready to go, said cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. A couple, Shamon Willis and Isaiah Herron, have retired for medical reasons.

“The silver lining is that guys got hurt, but young guys came out and made some really good, great games and gained valuable experience,” Sitake said. “So this year it’s like, ‘OK, how can we get even better at our depth?'”

Obviously, the return of Wilgar and Pili will greatly help the defense, which has struggled to get off the field in third and fourth for virtually all season, giving up many lengthy, time-consuming drives to opponents.

“I would predict it should help us, but we’ll just have to see what happens at fall camp,” Sitake said. “The only thing I can tell you is that it’s going to create a lot of competition. They have guys who started in 2021 who will be fighting for their spots for most of the season. You have to fight back against a guy who had that spot (before the injury).

As for the offense, which lost solid receiver Neil Pau’u in the Idaho State game and Rex in the USC game, Rex’s ankle injury is the most problematic for the future of this unit. Pau’u competed in Pro Day and is now trying to make it to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.

Here’s a closer look at the recovery process that Rex, Pili, and Wilgar are going through:

Isaak Rex: The 6-foot-6 student from San Clemente, Calif., said he’s been feeling “really good” right now and has been running, jumping and even sprinting for about a month. He was cleared by doctors last week to do more.

“I feel like I’m at 80% right now, and I feel like I can get to 100% before fall camp starts,” he said, despite limping slightly on Wednesday. “I don’t experience any setbacks. That’s kind of a key for me right now.”

Rex said he fractured his tibia and fibula and had surgery to repair his fibula the day after the injury, then had to wait two weeks for the swelling to go down to fix his tibia.

“I’ve got some plates and screws in there,” he said.

The surgeries forced Rex to postpone his civil marriage until January. The couple were sealed in the Draper Temple in April.

“My wife was so amazing throughout the process. Lexi was great,” he said. “I lay on the bed for six weeks and she sat right next to me. She fed me my drugs, she fed me food. I had to (urinate) in a can. She would take that to the bathroom with her. She was great man. My wife is a soldier. I knew she was the one I had to marry after that experience.”

Rex also thanked Dr. Joseph Patterson for conducting the surgeries and senior football athletic coach Steve Pincock for “helping me get ahead of schedule and come back quicker than I expected.”

As for his future after this season, his fourth at Provo, Rex said he hasn’t given it much thought.

“Really, I just want to show people and my team that I can play again and I’m focused on helping my team the best I can,” he said.

Tight Ends coach Steve Clark said he is “cautiously optimistic” Rex will be available when the Cougars play in South Florida on Sept. 3.

“He’s feeling as good as ever,” Clark said. “Structurally, the ankle is as good as ever. he wants to go But it’s one thing to run around outside and do seven-on-seven things. Going through a training camp is another. However, he’s ahead of schedule and that’s looking positive at the moment.”

Payton Wilgar: The St George junior underwent surgery on his right shoulder last November and his left shoulder six weeks later. He didn’t attend spring camp but has been feeling close to 100% for quite some time.

“Just waiting for the doctors to sign off and medically clear me (next week),” he said. “I’ve been blessed. It’s been really smooth from surgery to rehab to strength building. I’m feeling really good.”

Linebackers coach Kevin Clune said the three-year-old starter had superb instincts and ballhawking skills and was missed in the final month of the season. Wilgar had key interceptions against Baylor and Virginia last year.

“I just started punching bags again to make that contact,” Wilgar said. “Things are really good.”

Wilgar and his wife Krissy are due to give birth to a boy on July 16 — they’re considering naming it ‘Madden’ — but they’re no strangers to parenting. The couple nursed their nieces and nephews about eight months ago, as beautifully narrated in a Deep Blue feature by BYUtvsports.

“They’re home now and they’re doing really well,” Wilgar said. “I’m ready to be a father. I’ve been through the sleepless nights, the diapers, the baths, the feedings, all of the above. It put us off a bit, but we’re thrilled.”

Because he wore a redshirt in 2018 and 2020 could be considered a year off due to COVID-19, Wilgar could also play college football in 2023 if he wants to.

“I’m preparing like (2022) it is,” he said. “My mentality is to go out there and shoot, stay healthy and take the next step. But at the same time I don’t count anything. Depending on where I am at the end of the year and what is best for me and my family, I will decide when that time comes.”

Keenan Pili: The Provos Timpview High junior had a career-high 17 tackles in the opener against Arizona and was heading for an All-America season when he blew out his knee in Week 3 against Arizona State.

“I’ve been blessed with so many people supporting me, so it wasn’t bad at all,” he said.

After the surgery, the 6-3, 233-pound Pili was off his feet for about six weeks, then on crutches for a month. “That was probably the hardest time because I couldn’t do things myself,” he said. “My wife was there 24/7 to take care of me when I couldn’t walk on my own.”

Pili, arguably the Cougars’ best defensive player when healthy, said he should be released next week and plans to fully attend camp in August.

As for his future, he technically has three years to play two. He is unsure if this will be his last year at Provo.

“Yeah, that definitely crossed my mind. I’m not committed to anything,” he said. “I see this year as a really big year, a really important year. It’s our last year of independence and all, so that’s just my focus.”

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BYUtight end Isaac Rex points to the crowd after the final touchdown of a game against Arizona State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, September 18, 2021. Rex is recovering from injury but hopes to be ready to play when the 2022 season begins.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

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