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With quarterbacks under intense scrutiny, BYU's offense developing day by day this fall

PROVO — It’s a game you will have to wait to see.

If you’re looking for a quick reveal of BYU’s offense, it’s still in the oven.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and every other offensive coach will tell you that BYU’s quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, linemen and backs are farther ahead than expected. But in the same breath, almost in chorus, they’ll say there is a lot of work to do before the season opener at Arizona.

“Overall, in terms of our knowledge of the scheme, I’m pleased with where we are,” said Grimes this past week. “Honestly, probably a little bit ahead I think of where most groups would be this time of the year, which is a credit to what the players have done this summer. Overall knowledge is good, certainly not perfect. We still have a lot to do. We don’t have all of it in yet. We have a lot of offense in for having only practiced a few days.

“Not counting what we did in the spring, we basically took everything we did before and started again with an installation on day one. I would say, at this point, we’re at about 65 percent of what we will have in once we finish the installation. We’ll probably be at 90 percent by the end of this week.”

Regardless of anticipated revelations about BYU’s offense, it is an interesting tapestry this August.

Everyone wants to know whether senior Tanner Mangum will protect his perch with seniority and experience and start, or whether freshman Zach Wilson will beat him out. Could steady Joe Critchlow step in and earn the job after a week of taking a lot of third-team reps?

A good bet is that Mangum will indeed hold on to start, but Wilson is turning heads and Critchlow is a superior safety net.

“They’ve all improved,” said Grimes. “They are all in a position where they know more about the game than they did before. They’re getting rid of the ball quicker, their anticipation is better. You can tell they have thrown the ball a lot with our receivers this summer. Our chemistry between our quarterbacks and receivers is better than it was. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I’m pleased with what I’ve seen so far.”

To get a jump on all of it, head coach Kalani Sitake has formatted fall camp to include tons of “team” segments where his offense goes against his defense and they simply play football.

“It’s all Kalani,” said tight end coach Steve Clark. “That’s what he wants.”

Sitake explained he just wanted his team to get better at football.

“You can get good at basketball playing three-on-three, but I think you get better playing games. We’re trying to play 11-on-11 football and simulate stress situations for our players. We also want to see who are the best guys and let competition work it out.”

He said he was doing some things he’s never done before at any school he’s coached.

Assistant head coach Ed Lamb said that this isn’t the first time he’s seen this in a football camp.

When at the University of San Diego, Lamb said, USD had a great relationship with the NFL’s Chargers. The Toreros’ defensive coordinator had previously coached with Marty Schottenheimer and the Chargers.

“I noticed back then the pros don’t do individual hardly at all during practice. After practice, you might have guys stand out there for an hour or more,” he said. “Some of the veterans in training camp might say, ‘Hey, let’s set up a drill,’ and coaches might be around. A lot of times some veterans would cut out early, and rookies trying to make the team were the last ones off the field.

“To put the extra work in the hands of the players where there are coaches around can be a real good thing, and it enables us to do more team practice,” Lamb said. “Coach Sitake has called this ‘random practice.’ It’s one thing to do something in a drill setting where you know exactly what will happen. It’s another thing to do it in a game setting where you have to make a read and reaction and then execute the skill. At least all the players have bought into it so far. I’ve enjoyed it.”

Swallowing a new offense quickly in August is critical for the Cougars, and the sense of urgency is as thick as forest fire smoke this week.

The biggest chunk of that falls on the QBs, a position still under competition, at least to the public. Quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said there may not be any announcement of a starter, and, for a competitive advantage, it will stay that way as long as possible.

Lamb has seen Roderick’s work from the other side of the line, and he’s not worried.

“I have a real high level of confidence in all of our quarterbacks,” said Lamb.

BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum, running back/quarterback Beau Hoge and Corbin Kaufusi talk after a walkthrough in their indoor practice facility in Provo on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018.
BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum, running back/quarterback Beau Hoge and Corbin Kaufusi talk after a walkthrough in their indoor practice facility in Provo on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Tanner Mangum is so improved in so many ways — his approach, his demeanor, his confidence, his performance. I feel really confident in him. Joe Critchlow I am confident in. He goes out and operates with so much poise. He doesn’t make turnovers and doesn’t force things. Zach Wilson has more dynamic ability than any quarterback I’ve been around. Those three guys seem to be taking the majority of the reps. Jaren Hall got his opportunity a few days ago and stepped up and made big plays, scrambled out of the pocket and made some great throws. I don’t know how our offense sees the depth chart now, but I have confidence in all of them.”

The QB decision is a big one. Historically, there is no bigger equalizer in BYU football than a productive playmaking quarterback who can stress a defense and put an opponent on their heels.

In Jeff Grimes’s new offense, BYU is returning to bigger, and hopefully wider, beefy blockers for protection. The new scheme features portions of different philosophies and plays by three former coordinators, Roderick, Fesi Sitake (Weber State) and Steve Clark (SUU, Weber State).

The main thing it needs is a guy who can pull the trigger, or it goes nowhere.

“I think we’re progressing in ways that are good,” said Notre Dame transfer offensive lineman Tristen Hoge. “Each position has been taking steps every single day towards our goal. We are just where we need to be. The great thing is there’s a lot more to improve on. Knowing this group, they’re going to.”

Hoge said he hungers to play and the QBs are getting better every day.

“I can’t judge who is going to start, but the coaches will make the right decision,” he said. “The quarterbacks have done an incredible job this summer. They’ve been standouts in the weight room. We come out of class late at night and see them out here at 8 p.m. throwing to receivers who are working routes. To see their hard work makes me proud and love them to death.”

The big lineman said having two O-line coaches in Grimes and Ryan Pugh (with graduate assistant Dallas Reynolds) is getting two for the price of one, and there’s an abundance of knowledge there.

“You can tell Grimes loves us and puts us to the forefront. He puts a lot of pressure on us and it’s a lot of responsibility, but we handle it. To see how they work together is a huge positive for us.”

His cousin Beau Hoge, who could be used at multiple positions on offense including quarterback, running back and receiver, said having three former offensive coordinators is fun.

BYU's offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes talks with friends and media after a walkthrough in their indoor practice facility in Provo on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018.
Offensive Coordinator, Jeff Grimes talks with friends and media after a walkthrough in their indoor practice facility in Provo on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“It’s kind of like they are in a lab, mad scientists joining their forces with the other coaches. It’s a very educated staff who has come up with some creative things. It will be interesting to see what kind of game plan they come up with.”

Mangum has played in 26 games and is by far the most experienced quarterback. In a fair world, Mangum has earned the right to start against Arizona unless he is completely taken over by either Joe Critchlow or freshman Zach Wilson in coming days.

“We still have a lot of work, but we’re dialing things in,” Mangum said this week. “It’s been a great camp so far and we’re putting in things every day. Every practice we get is a chance to get better and that’s how we’re looking at it, taking one day at a time. That is all we’re going to focus on. We aren’t going to get ahead of ourselves.”

Mangum is the last BYU quarterback to have a 300-yard passing game. A former co-MVP of the famed Elite Eleven camp, Mangum said he’s in the best shape of his life coming off Achilles tendon surgery.

“I feel great. I’m healthy, I’m strong, playing well and I’m enjoying every moment of it,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve come in and made plays. We have a long ways to go but I like where we’re at and where we’re going.”

Former NFL and Cougar quarterback John Beck is working with the best professional, collegiate and high school talent in the country as a throwing coach in Southern California, and he has the freshman Wilson as a client.

Beck’s connection to Wilson came through Wilson’s cousin whom he’d worked with. Zach is currently a paying client who has made several trips throughout the summer to meet with Beck for instruction and drills. Wilson’s fundamentals, footwork, and throwing motion are impressive.

Beck said Wilson has communicated by phone and text after visits.

“He basically did all the training like our NFL guys do. We basically give the NFL guys a way to train their bodies specific to them. This would be like exercises and movement patterns,” he said. “We also train them on things they need to do for movement strategy for their specific bodies. No two bodies are exactly alike, therefore no two throwing motions are alike. We try and identify areas Zach could improve on.

“The times he’s worked with us, he’s worked like a pro. When he came to me he actually should have been a senior in high school, but he was a freshman in college. I watched his tapes to get a feeling for him before he came out. I put him through our movement screens and testing. He has a lot of things going for him. He already has some great qualities and traits, and he adds to that a great work ethic.”

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson talks with media after a walkthrough in their indoor practice facility in Provo on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018.
Quarterback Zach Wilson talks with media after a walkthrough in their indoor practice facility in Provo on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Beck said Wilson just gets it and that’s a big part of quarterbacking.

“If a guy doesn’t get it, how quick can he get it? That’s the big question. I can see he does a lot of work on his own. Things I ask him to do, he does on his own, and when he comes back, he’s improved.”

Beck said in this regard, Wilson reminds him of Matt Ryan, the former Boston College quarterback now with the Atlanta Falcons. Like Ryan, Wilson texts Beck often telling him what he’s doing and what he’s feeling, what’s working and what’s not. He gives immediate feedback. Beck’s noticed Wilson’s confidence is high.

“Usually a high school quarterback has a lot of confidence because he hasn’t run into anything that’s got in the way. He understands how his feet tie into the play and into his throwing motion. He understands how his lower body is used in the motion. There is nothing throwing him off his rhythm now. Another thing that’s stood out is he is a decisive kid.”

Beck said all quarterbacks who have high confidence — whether Wilson, Mangum, Critchlow or anyone — need a high level of confidence because it keeps them decisive. Once they lose that, they begin to chip away at confidence and they question themselves and what they are doing. They become hesitant and begin to doubt, and then they are not able to perform at a high level.

This is why Saturday’s initial scrimmage loomed so large for all the QBs. Sitake said he planned to put them through live action where they could be hit, pressured, chased and touched. He wanted to see who kept their confidence under pressure, ultimately a key factor in a decision on who will start and who will be the backup.

Reporters were not permitted to attend Saturday’s major scrimmage.

Before Saturday, Roderick told reporters that the offensive staff did not have a date to announce a starting quarterback before the Arizona game.

“I don’t know that we’ll announce it. We haven’t decided that yet. Why announce it if there’s no advantage to announcing it?” Roderick said.

“There’s been a little bit of separation but not quite enough to make any statements yet. But with the scrimmage, it’s a big day. We’ve told them it’s important to play well.”

In the closed practice, the defense did indeed put pressure on the QBs, forcing a lot of throws on the run and out of comfort zones, according to attendees. Squally Canada led a run attack that got traction. There were dropped passes at crucial times and a holding penalty that stalled work by Mangum. Wilson benefited from a series that had great execution by his supporting cast. Anybody who has a favorite in the QB derby would have left that scrimmage believing their favorite guy had the good day. Critchlow, who has been fairly relegated to third-team reps so far in fall, showed great poise and made few mistakes in the reps he received.

On Monday, Sitake said, he’d review film and give a scrimmage report. It will be as much as he wants to reveal and a highlight will be a call for improvement.

Bottom line: BYU’s offense is a work in progress, and it needs to incubate a little more in weeks to come.