BYU’s Manoa Pikula celebrates an interception with outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, during the inaugural Miami Beach Bowl football game Memphis, Monday, Dec. 22, 2014 in Miami. Poppinga is returning to Provo as special teams coordinator and defensive assistant after being away at Virginia and Boise State the past seven years.
Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press
It took fewer than seven days to return former Cougars linebacker and assistant coach Kelly Poppinga to BYU’s football program after a seven-year absence.
“It happened fast, man,” Poppinga said Thursday in an introductory news conference via Zoom. “It happened really quickly.”
Poppinga, 40, was announced by head coach Kalani Sitake on Wednesday as BYU’s new special teams coordinator and defensive assistant coach, although his exact role with new defensive coordinator Jay Hill’s defense has yet to be defined.
Basically, Poppinga is replacing Ed Lamb, who left BYU to become Northern Colorado’s head coach earlier this week.
A week ago, Poppinga was coaching Boise State’s special teams and edge rushers when he got word that Sitake was interested in bringing him back to Provo, where his playing career was revived after he began at Utah State, and where his coaching career began as an intern in 2009 and a graduate assistant in 2010.
Wanting to put all his attention and energy into Boise State’s matchup with Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game, Poppinga asked Sitake to get permission from BSU coach Andy Avalos to discuss the opening after the game, which Sitake did.
“As soon as the game was over … Kalani and I got on the phone and talked, and yeah, there was an offer,” Poppinga said. “My wife (Rebekah) and I had to make a quick decision, and shoot, that night, Saturday night (Dec. 3) everything kinda went down where I told Kalani (BYU) is where I wanted to be and I had to call coach Avalos that same night and let him know I was going to take this opportunity that was best for me and my family.”
Poppinga, who followed Bronco Mendenhall from BYU to Virginia in 2016 and was the Cavaliers’ special teams coordinator in 2016-17 and co-defensive coordinator from 2018-21 before Mendenhall suddenly resigned after the 2021 season, said he spent Sunday morning calling the players he coached at Boise State with the news, a task he said was difficult.
“I believe (going back to BYU) is a great opportunity for me and my family,” he said. “I am really, really excited about all the things I have learned over the past seven years to come back and apply some of those things here.
“The ultimate goal is to win conference championship (in the Big 12),” he continued. “That’s my ultimate goal at BYU, is to help us do that.”
Rekindling old relationships, forming new ones
Surprisingly, Poppinga did not have much of a relationship with Hill, who played and coached at the University of Utah and was Weber State’s head coach for nine years. The two crossed paths out on the recruiting trail, and exchanged friendly greetings, but had never sat down for a conversation or even spoken on the phone until last Sunday.
BYU’s Kelly Poppinga and Brett Denney tackle UCLA quarterback Ben Olson in Pasadena, Calif., Sept. 8, 2007. Poppinga will be a member of Kalani Sitake’s staff when the Cougars join the Big 12 in 2023.
Tom Smart, Deseret News
“That was an easy one for me,” Hill said of signing off on bringing Poppinga aboard. “I got to coach against him when he was a player. I got to see how tenacious he was and what a tough guy he was. And then also when he was a coach here he developed some of the best linebackers in the last 10 years here at BYU, some phenomenal NFL guys (such as Fred Warner and Kyle Van Noy). So that one was a no-brainer for me.”
It is fairly apparent that linebackers coach Kevin Clune and safeties coach Preston Hadley will not be retained; as of Friday, BYU had not announced who will take their places. Poppinga said graduate assistant Gavin Fowler is running the Cougars’ special teams as they prepare for the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17.
“We plan on retaining (cornerbacks coach) Jernaro Gilford,” Hill said. “And then, looking past that, it is going to be Kalani and I evaluating the rest of the staff, evaluating who is potentially out there, and making sure we get the best fits for the program.”
Hill said an emphasis will be put on coaches who do a “phenomenal job going out and recruiting and then putting those pieces in place.”
Poppinga said that lengthy telephone discussion with Hill a few days ago convinced him that they could work well together.
“The words that he was using are the same words I grew up in in this profession: accountability, discipline, toughness,” Poppinga said. “That is what he wants to instill in this defense, and those are the things that I have been taught from the beginning.
“I know he has always had tough teams, physical teams, and I know we are going to establish that. It is going to start in practice. So the way that we practice, and the way that we go about establishing that physicality and that toughness and that accountability, that discipline, it starts in practice.”
Staying in touch with Sitake
Sitake said Poppinga’s recruiting prowess is one of the reasons he wanted to bring him back. Poppinga played a key role in getting Warner, now arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, to Provo.
Poppinga said he got to know Sitake at summer football camps, such as the All-Poly Camp, when they were previously at BYU and Utah, respectively. He said the thought of returning to BYU was always in the back of his mind, but he figured it would be 10 to 15 years after he left, not now.
“In the coaching profession, you gotta keep those networks open. And I never knew what opportunities would come here, but I thought it was always good to just stay in contact with as many coaches as I could,” Poppinga said. “… So sure enough when the opportunity came this time around, the timing was right for me to get back here.
“I have always wanted to learn from (Sitake and Hill) and learn this defensive scheme that has been so successful over the years. Just seeing the success that Jay had at Utah, and at Weber State, and just seeing the success that Kalani has had throughout his career, not just at Utah, but here as well, I am excited to learn from those guys and anxious to get to work and get things rolling here.”
‘BYU is who I am’
Poppinga, who has four daughters, arrived in Provo on Thursday to begin the next chapter of his coaching career, and said “it just felt like home” when he walked into the BYU football offices at the Student Athlete Building for the first time since December 2015 when the Cougars were preparing to face Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl with a lame-duck staff.
“I felt like I was back where I should be,” he said. “It just felt right. It felt like I never left, honestly. I pulled up this morning and parked in the same spot I used to park in seven years ago and walked into the building and it just felt good, man. That is the thing that is great about BYU, is there are amazing people here and they are aligned with the university.”
BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, left, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy celebrate the team’s 14-13 win over Mississippi in game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011, in Oxford, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press
Poppinga said Sitake has certainly made changes to the way Mendenhall ran things, but both adhere to the same high standards and expect the same lofty levels of success.
“That’s the main thing I have noticed as I have been around today, that there is a standard that is held here,” he said. “I know coach Kalani has done a great job of wanting to keep that high standard that has been established here over the years. I am excited to be able to help us hold that high standard of winning here, and just buy into his culture and his way of doing things. … I am fired up to be a part of it.”
Poppinga is the first full-time coach from Mendenhall’s former staff to return to BYU from Virginia, but not the first employee. Director of player personnel Justin Anderson and director of football recruiting Patrick Hickman came back earlier this year.
A lot of people saw it coming, given Poppinga’s roots and passion for the place.
“BYU, shoot, it is who I am, man. I grew up (with) my dad taking me and my brothers to games since I was a little kid.”
He said his first three daughters were born in Provo, and they are “fired up” to return as well.
“It is exciting to be back and be able to contribute and be able to help in any way possible to just help this team continue to progress and grow,” he said. “With BYU getting into the Big 12, I continue to say, (my goal is) just help us compete for conference championships.”
‘I wanted to beat them bad’
Of course, Poppinga has been in Provo several times since leaving in 2016, most notably in 2021 when BYU put a 66-49 whipping on Virginia, racking up 385 rushing yards and 349 passing yards in a track meet game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU running back Hinckley Ropati looks to escape Boise State cornerback Tyric LeBeauf Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. New BYU special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga was a member of that Boise State staff prior to accepting an offer to join Kalani Sitake’s staff in Provo earlier this week.
Steve Conner, Associated Press
On Nov. 5, BYU took its four-game losing streak to Boise and stunned the Broncos 31-28 on the blue turf.
“Yeah, so I just want to make it clear: At no time in my career (have) I wanted to beat a team more than in those two games,” Poppinga said. “So that was the bottom line. I wanted to beat them bad. But, with that being said, I really respected them.”
Poppinga said he mostly studied BYU’s offense leading up to those games and gained a lot of respect for what offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake have done on that side of the ball.
“It is a difficult, difficult scheme to defend. And they have done a great job, just being able to be balanced, just being able to throw the ball down the field and being able to run the football, and being able to be a balanced attack,” he said. “… They are balanced everywhere. That is a really hard scheme to attack defensively where you got guys everywhere that get the ball.”
As for the defense that he will help Hill with, Poppinga said its ability to hold Boise State to 28 points last month showed the culture that Sitake has built is paying dividends.
“I just really respect Kalani and the way he has built this culture here, which is really different than when I was here in a lot of ways, but very similar in a lot of ways,” Poppinga said. “I am so anxious to learn from him and grow and see how he has built this winning tradition that he has over these seven years.”
New Mexico Bowl on the air
vs. SMU (7-5)
Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m. MST
University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM