PROVO — Turns out, the best part about coaching BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy is also the toughest part.
Kelly Poppinga, the Cougars' outside linebackers coach, knows all about that. When he talks about Van Noy, it's almost as if he's talking about taming a wild stallion.
"To coach a guy like Kyle is kind of hard because he has his instincts where he wants to do things outside the scheme a lot," Poppinga explained. "You have to bring him back in. But at the same time, you have to let him go and let him make plays when he feels like he can make plays."
And making plays happens to be Van Noy's specialty.
Last season, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior from Reno, Nev., ranked No. 1 on BYU's defense in unassisted tackles (50), tackles-for-loss (15, for minus-93 yards), sacks (7), interceptions (3), quarterback hurries (10) and blocked kicks (1).
He was No. 2 in total tackles (68) and forced fumbles (3).
Van Noy's forced fumble and subsequent fumble recovery that resulted in his game-winning touchdown in the waning moments of the season-opener at Ole Miss was evidence of his playmaking ability.
But Van Noy, who is regarded to possess NFL-caliber talent, has to be reined in sometimes.
"What I tell him is, 'If your instincts tell you to go make the play, you'd better make the play,' " Poppinga said. "And he did a great job over the last nine or 10 games of controlling when he took chances and when he didn't. It's been impressive. He's a really fun guy to work with and I'm excited to see how much more he's going to progress over this next year. And then, hopefully, I get him another year, you never know. Hopefully, I have two more years with him."
Even more amazing about the way Van Noy performed last season was the fact he suffered a shoulder injury in late October against TCU — yet kept on playing the rest of the season.
"He played through it. He really didn't let anyone know that he was hurt," said Poppinga. "I could tell he was hurt by the way that he practiced. Then he'd get in the game and was fine. As the season wore on, I could tell there was something that wasn't right. He told me something wasn't right as we got closer to the end of the season.
"When we got into offseason training, there was for sure something wrong. Come to find out that he had his shoulder issue. He played with a significant injury. It shows you how tough he is and how much he cared about the team and didn't want to be selfish and take himself out, not thinking about the future and playing in the NFL. He gave himself up and had a great year."
During the winter, Van Noy underwent shoulder surgery, which sidelined him for spring drills. But he is expected to be fully healthy for fall camp in August.
Poppinga marvels at the way Van Noy was able to play late last season with the shoulder injury.
"The way that he finished, in the final four games of the year, you never would have known that he was hurt," Poppinga said. "He played one of the better four-game spans at outside linebacker in BYU history, in my opinion. I hope he continues to get better and continues to help the guys around him get better."
Van Noy plays the "will," or weakside, linebacker position. Manning the opposite side of BYU's 3-4 scheme this fall on the strongside will be junior Spencer Hadley — who was switched from inside linebacker this spring — and sophomore Alani Fua.
Hadley has made progress in that transition from inside to outside, Poppinga said.
"He has some issues to get better at, mainly in (pass) coverage, but he's picked it up fast. He understands things really well. Athletically, he's very similar to (former Cougar) Jordan Pendleton in the way that he plays and the way that he can cover ground. It's going to be like having No. 1 (Pendleton) out there wearing a No. 2 jersey. He's pretty impressive with how fast he's picked it up."
Poppinga loves the depth he enjoys at the outside linebacker positions, which also includes Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, Kevan Bills, Lene Lesatele, Seth Probert and Tanner Cox.
"We've got a bunch of guys," Poppinga said. "I'm anxious to see these guys progress and get better. I'm just super-happy. I was nervous because I was losing three players from last year — Jordan Pendleton, Jadon Wagner and Jameson Frazier — but I'm gaining Spencer, and we have experience with Alani and Ziggy. One of our best players is coming back in Kyle. The depth is there and the talent is there, and they're all young guys."