OGDEN — Head college football coaches have plenty on their plate — creating a team culture, leading recruiting, hiring assistant coaches and otherwise managing the program from top to bottom.
At Weber State, Jay Hill has also willingly taken on the mantle of defensive coordinator. Entering his sixth season as head coach, Hill will call WSU’s defense for the fourth season and third consecutive year.
It’s been a good thing for the Wildcats, to understate it.
In 2018, Weber State led the Big Sky Conference by allowing the fewest points per game at 21.2, which is itself a deceiving number. Removing seven touchdowns allowed by offense or special teams (defensive fumble or interception returns was a weakness of last year’s offense), that average drops to 17.4 points per game allowed directly by the defense.
Getting even more technical, WSU allowed zero touchdowns to eventual national runner-up Eastern Washington, and only gave up offensive scores to South Dakota and Sacramento State with third-stringers on the field as the clocked ticked through the final seconds.
Hill said after the Sacramento State game he’d rather get more players game experience in the fourth quarter than worry about the statistics of what points were scored.
“Everyone knows how much coach Hill knows about football,” senior defensive end Jonah Williams said. “So when he makes a call, it’s not like anyone is questioning the call. He knows what the offense is about to do, he’s going to put us in the best situation to make plays and capitalize on their play. It’s 100% trust in his play calls. As long as he’s leading it for us, he’ll set us up for success.”
Hill came to Weber State after 13 years at the University of Utah, where he built a reputation as a skilled coach across both defense and special teams.
“In all my years at Utah, it’s something I always wanted to do,” Hill said about running a defense. “It’s something I felt comfortable and confident in doing, and now I had the opportunity to say I wanted to do that.”
In the years he wasn’t WSU’s defensive coordinator, Hill said he thought it was unfair how he’d sometimes be frustrated by playcalling only because it was different than he’d do it.
“If that’s the case, you should just call it. That’s what we’ve done and what we’ve been good at. That is what went into the decision,” he explained.
The Wildcats have excelled in a traditional 4-3 defensive look, with four linemen up front — two to disrupt in the middle, two to rush the edge — three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties. Coming into 2019, in particular, the four-man front will allow WSU’s exceptional defensive line depth to impact every game.
As Williams said, much of it has to do with trust in Hill’s schemes, scouting and playcalls.
“One thing I love about my three years in coordinating the defense here is I can tell the players trust me,” Hill said. “There are times, quite frankly, I’ve made stupid calls and on Monday, I’ll tell them, ‘this one is on me, that’s my fault.’ They know I’ll take responsibility. There are other times when I can say ‘hey, we can’t put you in a better call than this.’ They know we take ownership in how we call it and most of the time, we’ve been pretty good.”
One of the overriding factors in his decision to take over as defensive coordinator is being neck deep in it on game day.
“I love it. It’s one of my favorite things because I like the chess match between myself and the opposing offense,” Hill said. “I definitely like being in the mix. I can’t blame anyone. If the defense plays bad, it’s my fault. I can’t pass the buck.”
The demand of helping players take ownership and understand the defense is part of it, too.
“I like the challenge of getting your players to understand what you’re thinking,” Hill said. “You can call the best plays in the world but if your players don’t know why you’re doing it, or what the reasons are with certain things you’re trying to accomplish, then it doesn’t matter. That’s part of the fun is, I see it this way, can your players see it that way, too?”
Senior linebacker Auston Tesch says that has come to fruition, leading to success.
“When you sit down in meetings and talk about defense, there’s nobody smarter,” Tesch said. “He just points things out that you’d never notice, or he’s leading the discussion and saying how things should be. But he opens it up for more ideas, too, and that’s what helps our defense. He knows what to look for and to help us see the things he sees.”
None of it matters without the players. Hand in hand, talented players make Hill’s scheme work and Hill’s playcalling talents help create all-conference, sometimes All-American, defenders.
“We have great players, smart players,” Hill said. “Their buy-in and their trust in me and my playcalls — there are times when you call something stupid and they still make it work. That speaks to great players and the trust we have in this program.”
Experienced players like Tesch then become extensions of Hill on the field — not a cliché, Tesch says.
“It definitely happens, especially with young players who are just on the cusp of really getting it — just being able to point a few things out that really makes everything click, grease the wheels and make them roll a little faster for these kids,” he said.
“It’s good for me. Someone’s always chasing after my job, so it helps me stay on top of things I need to know and then help them come along as well.”
Hill holding the defensive play sheet on game days isn’t a lack of trust in his other coaches, he says. Assistant coaches often call the defense during practice, allowing them to connect with the players and grow in the same way.
When he feels comfortable with an assistant coach calling plays on game day, he says he’ll hand it over — could be soon, could be a year or two.
“I love my coaches, there are guys ready to call defense on my staff,” Hill said.
“For right now, this is what the players want and what I want. Until I feel like we’re a better team with someone else calling the defense, I’ll keep doing it.”