PROVO — BYU opened spring football practices way back on Feb. 27 and finished up on the last day of March.
In between, the Cougars held 15 practices, took a trip to the balmy climes of St. George — where they practiced, hung out with fans and went camping — and prepared for the upcoming 2017 season.
Coach Kalani Sitake, in his second year at the helm of his alma mater, likes the direction of the program.
“I think we’re settled in a lot more. We’re really comfortable with our team and our program,” Sitake said. “Last year we were still trying to get to know everybody. A year later, I think as a coaching staff we’ve earned the trust of the players. Our program’s become closer. When you have that, you can accomplish a lot of things.”
The Cougars kick off the upcoming season at home on Aug. 26 against Portland State.
Here are 10 things we learned from spring ball:
1. Mangum is the Man.
Junior quarterback Tanner Mangum bided his time last year as Taysom Hill’s backup. Now, the keys to the offense are in his hands.
“I’ve been really happy with him all spring,” Sitake said. “He’s a leader of this team, especially on our offense and we’re going to need him to make big plays.”
Mangum said he made significant progress during spring ball.
“One of the biggest improvements for me, personally, is the understanding and the mastery of the offense. Having a year under my belt now, and having it more ingrained, I’ve been able to improve even since last season. I feel good and I feel confident.
“The game slows down and you understand what you’re seeing. You understand coverages and you understand front,” Mangum added. “Having a mastery of the offense allows you to have more freedom. It allows you to be more creative, makes some checks at the line and call some audibles because you know what you’re doing. That makes it fun. That’s what (offensive coordinator) Ty (Detmer) wants for us — to have that freedom and be able to put ourselves in good position to win and be able to make plays.”
2. BYU might be back in the tight end business.
Matt Bushman, who stole the show during the spring scrimmage, and Moroni Laulu-Pututau, could make a big impact on BYU’s offense at the tight end position, something that’s been missing for several years.
“Matt Bushman’s a special player. He’s big and smooth,” Sitake said. “He can do a lot of things. Moroni had a good spring. The tight end position did really well. (Joe Tukuafu’s) done well. Tight end can be a big weapon for us this year.”
“Matt Bushman’s great. Moroni’s doing well too. Matt’s been a great addition to our team,” said Mangum. “He’s worked hard to become a legitimate target for us. We love having guys over the middle. It makes our job easy. It makes it tough for the defense as well. They are some big dudes that can run as well and it’s a tough matchup for linebackers to cover.”
3. Who else emerged during the spring?
Defensively, the first player that defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki mentioned as having a breakout spring was cornerback Chris Wilcox.
“Chris is really sticking out as a guy that could push for time, if not for a starting spot,” he said.
Tuiaki also liked the progress of defensive linemen Tevita Mo’unga, Handsome Tanielu, Kesni Tausinga and Solomone Wolfgramm and Trajan Pili at defensive end.
Offensively, Detmer pointed out a few wide receivers like Micah Simon, Talon Shumway (who “kind of became a go-to guy for us”) and Akile Davis. Others who shined during the spring include running backs Ula Tolutau, K.J. Hall and Riley Burt.
4. The offensive line could be a strength of the offense.
The Cougars have struggled with depth on the O-line but they have more experience and more bodies than they’ve had in a while. The question is, can they stay healthy?
The offensive line is headlined by senior center Tejan Koroma and left tackle Thomas Shoaf, named a freshman All-American last season. Keyan Norman, Austin Hoyt and Kieffer Longson also return.
“We have a great offensive line that I’m excited about,” Sitake said. “We’ve got some depth there. Not a lot of numbers but we feel like we have 12 offensive linemen that we can work with.”
Sitake added that while he sees Mangum as the strength of the offense, “we’re going to have to lean on the O-line. Those guys will keep getting bigger and stronger. We’re going to have to run the ball, that’s what we do here. We’ll have it balance with the throw game as well. Establishing the run game is what’s going to be most important for us right now.”
5. BYU’s linebackers are not just playmakers, but they’re also leaders.
Linebackers Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard are the heart and soul of the Cougar defense and they will be relied on heavily this season.
“Having those three back are huge for us,” Sitake said. “The ‘backers are good,” Sitake said. “The three that played last year are really good and their backups are really good as well. We’re comfortable with six guys… There’s a lot of good depth there.”
“This could be one of the best groups that’s ever done it here with Butch, Francis and me and the guys who are competing behind us,” Warner said. “It’s going to be a really good group this year.”
Warner added that the linebackers are the leaders of the defense.
“I expect that out of us,” he said. “We’ll be the ones making a lot of plays on defense this season and being the vocal leaders.”
6. The Cougars are balancing hard work and having fun.
Taking a cue from Sitake’s personality, and that of the staff, BYU players are enjoying themselves.
“Look at Kalani and the way he interacts with people,” said Mangum. “He’s a fun guy to be around. All of our coaches are. We went to St. George and went camping for the weekend. We had a blast. It’s good to be able to mix it up, have fun and work really hard. We’re doing that.”
“When you enjoy yourself, you put more effort and energy into it. We’re always going to keep them loose but at the same time get our work done,” Detmer said. “There’s a time to laugh and joke and have fun and there’s a time to work. I feel like our guys do a pretty good job of knowing when that is. We’re always going to try to be a loose group around here. We want them playing loose and not tight and worried about all the things they can’t control. It’s good to see them out there laughing, having a good time.”
7. Players are finding homes at new positions.
Besides Laulu-Pututau moving from wide receiver to tight end and Kavika Fonua going from linebacker to running back, other BYU players switched positions during the spring.
Washington State transfer Kamel Greene started spring as a corner but he’s now a safety.
“He was a big special teams guy and moved from corner,” Tuiaki said. “He’s gotten better at the corner spot and we ended up moving him, which is more natural, to safety.”
Rhett Sandlin, who has been playing linebacker, is “emerging as a guy that’s starting to get it and show out for us” on the defensive line, Tuiaki said.
Coaches have also considered moving starting cornerbacks Troy Warner and Dayan Ghanwoloku to safety, if the cornerbacks that are joining the team during the summer, like recent signee Chabot College cornerback Trevion Greene, “end up being contributors right away,” Tuiaki said. “For their future, Troy and Dayan, at the next level will end up being at that (safety) spot.”
8. The defensive line remains a work in progress.
BYU is transitioning from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme, and that process will continue to take time as the coaching staff recruits to that alignment.
In the meantime, the Cougars are dealing with a lack of depth and experience up front.
“I’m always in my bed, waking up in a cold sweat about something,” said Tuiaki. “With all the switches that we made and losing great players like Harvey (Langi), Sae (Tautu) and Logan (Taele), Logan was an anchor for us last year and did a really good job. I’m always concerned about who ends up showing up. Practice is practice. Who ends up showing up in a game is a little bit different.”
Two status of two defensive linemen, Sione Takitaki and Tomasi Laulile, who did not participate in spring ball, is unclear.
“I don’t have much information on that,” Sitake said last week. “We’ll find out when spring semester starts.”
Longtime defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi is now coaching the linebackers while Tuiaki is overseeing the defensive line.
“(Tuiaki) has done a great job with the defense with their ability to force turnovers and making plays,” Sitake said. “Once (Tuiaki) gets working with the D-line, he’s a great technician, so he knows how to teach the D-line how to get to the quarterback and how to disrupt the run with a four-man rush.”
9. Strength and conditioning is a year-round priority, even during spring ball.
During the spring, the coaches talked about how the players look different physically. They’ve added muscle and increased their strength under Nu’u Tafisi, BYU’s director of football strength and conditioning.
Sitake said a main focus during the spring was “to not disrupt our offseason conditioning and strength programs. The weight room was the most important part of this phase. … After seeing what (Tafisi) does in the weight room, our guys have bought into that. I feel like we were able to accomplish both things, with the main emphasis being on offseason conditioning.”
“Coach Sitake is really leaning towards giving the guys a full weight room session four, five or six days a week in the weight room,” said assistant head coach Ed Lamb. “We’ve seen that pay dividends.”
10. The coaches like the talent and depth in the defensive secondary.
While playmaker and ballhawk Kai Nacua has graduated, Sitake is pleased with the defensive backfield.
“Right now we feel really good with our safeties — Tanner Jacobson, Kamel Greene, Micah Hannemann,” Sitake said. “We feel good about Matt Hadley. There’s a lot of guys there that can play — Sawyer Powell, Zayne Anderson, Austin Lee. It’s a lot of guys. We feel comfortable with that position. The DBs really got better with their technique. I was really impressed with our corners. We return two starters (Troy Warner and Ghanwoloku). Chris Wilcox did great, Isaiah Armstrong’s coming around. I feel really comfortable with our defensive backs right now.”