BYU football: How healthy are linebackers Keenan Pili, Payton Wilgar?

It has been well-documented that injuries to key players put a damper on BYU’s 2021 football season, as the Cougars sort of 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 Wednesday’s BYU football media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building, coaches and the players themselves — with the exception of Ah You — provided updates on their recoveries as the “season feels like it is just around the corner,” in the words of head coach Kalani Sitake.

“If we can (stay healthy), I think we will have a good shot at a good season. Part of getting our guys ready and providing good depth is making sure that we are healthy. So far, going into this camp, I think we are going to be in a really good spot.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

Generally, the reports were favorable. Barring any unforeseen setbacks Or new injuries, BYU should start fall camp on Aug. 3 at full strength.

“If we can get that done, I think we will have a good shot at a good season,” Sitake said of the recoveries. “Part of getting our guys ready and providing good depth is making sure that we are healthy. So far, going into this camp, I think we are going to be in a really good spot.”

Some guys who missed the entire 2021 season, such as cornerback Micah Harperparticipated in spring ball in March and are also good to go, cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford said. A couple, Shamon Willis and Isaiah Herronhave taken medical retirements.

“The silver lining on everything is guys got hurt, but young guys stepped up and made some really good, big-time plays and gained a valuable experience,” Sitake said. “So going into this year it is like, ‘OK, how can we get our depth even better?”

Obviously, getting Wilgar and Pili back will greatly help the defense, which struggled to get off the field on third and fourth down virtually the entire season and gave up a lot of lengthy, time-consuming drives to opponents.

“I would predict that it should help us out, but we just have to see what happens in fall camp,” Sitake said. “The one thing that I can tell you is that it is going to create a lot of competition. You have guys that started 2021 that are going to be fighting for their spots the majority of the season. They are going to have to fight off a guy that had that spot (before 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 troublesome in regard to that unit’s future. Pau’u participated in pro day and is now trying to make it in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.

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

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

“I feel like I am 80% right now, and I feel like I can get to 100% before fall camp starts,” he said, although he was limping slightly Wednesday. “I am not having any setbacks. That’s kind of a key for me right now.”

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

“I have a couple plates and screws in there,” he said.

The surgeries forced Rex to postpone his civil wedding until January. The couple was sealed in the Draper temple in April.

“My wife has been so amazing throughout this whole process. Lexi has been awesome,” he said. “I was on the bed for six weeks, and she was sitting right next to me. She was feeding me my drugs, she was feeding me food. I had to (urinate) in a can. She would take that to the bathroom. She was awesome, man. My wife is a trooper. I knew she was the one I had to marry after that experience.”

Rex also thanked Joseph Patterson for performing the surgeries and head football athletic trainer Steve Pincock for “helping me get ahead of schedule and coming back faster than I thought I would be.”

As for his future beyond this season, his fourth in Provo, Rex said he hasn’t thought about it much.

“Really, I just want to show people and my team that I can get back to playing and am focused on helping out my team the best I can,” he said.

Tight ends coach Steve Clark said he is “cautiously optimism” that Rex will be available when the Cougars play at South Florida on Sept. 3.

“He feels like he is as good as ever,” Clark said. ‘Structurally, the ankle is as good as ever. He is wanting to go. But it is one thing to run around outside and do seven-on-seven stuff. It is another to go through a training camp. He is ahead of the schedule, though, and so it looks positive right now.”

Payton Wilgar: The junior from St. George had surgery on his right shoulder last November and his left shoulder six weeks later. He didn’t participate in spring camp, but has felt close to 100% for quite some time.

“I am just waiting for the doctors to sign off and medically clear me (next week),” he said. “I have been blessed. It has been really smooth from surgery to the rehab, to the strength building. I feel really good.”

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

“I just started hitting bags agin, getting that contact in,” Wilgar said. “Things are really good.”

Wilgar and his wife, Krissy, will welcome a baby boy on July 16 — they are considering the name “Madden” — but they aren’t strangers to parenting. The couple fostered their nieces and nephews awhile back for about eight months, as was told beautifully in a Deep Blue feature by BYUtvsports.

“They are back home now and doing really well,” Wilgar said. “I am ready to be a dad. I have been through the sleepless nights, the diapers, the baths, the feeding, all of the above. It scared us away for a little bit, but we are excited.”

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

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

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

“I was blessed with so many people who support me so it hasn’t been bad at all,” he said.

After 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 and was a nurse to me when I couldn’t walk on my own.”

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

As for his future, he technically has three years to play two. He’s undecided whether this will be his last year in Provo.

“Yeah, it has definitely crossed my mind. I am not set on anything,” he said. “I am looking at this year like this is a really big year, a really important year. It is our last year of independence and everything, so I am just focused on it.”

merlin_2884949.jpg

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

Shafkat Anwar, Desiret News