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Dick Harmon: BYU's walk-on talent proving critical for Kalani Sitake's squad as preparation for Arizona begins

BYU Cougars defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi (90) and Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri (53) celebrate a missed Massachusetts Minutemen field goal in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.
BYU Cougars defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi (90) and Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri (53) celebrate a missed Massachusetts Minutemen field goal in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred

Kalani Sitake must find a few silver bullets for his football team to manage BYU’s strict admission requirements for recruits.

The enhanced walk-on and academic scholarship program might just be that golden parachute for BYU football and its challenge of filling out a roster with quality talent.

It’s a strategy recognized by former head coach Bronco Mendenhall and it is becoming more apparent with the coaches who followed him. With impending stricter admittance barriers for walk-on athletes, it has to be managed at a higher level.

As the Cougar fall camp comes to a close this week in preparation for the season opener at Arizona, there are faces that have been missed including defensive linemen Tevita Mo'unga, Oregon transfer Wayne Kirby and an expected 2018 recruit out of Juan Diego High school, Chinonso Opara, who ended up at Weber State.

Mo’unga, coaches say, believes he’ll be OK and Kirby is working on it. In the meantime, several interior defensive linemen without scholarships have stepped in and made a major impact.

This is proving to be a safety net for the Cougars — players without an athletic scholarship but who are in school as scholars.

Books don’t make tackles, however. Players have to be good.

“The good news is that a couple of walk-on players have stepped up in the interior of the defensive line in Zac Dawe and Bracken El-Bakri,” according to assistant head coach Ed Lamb.

“They have filled in nicely. We hope everybody is available. If we lose just one, they’re all ours. They’re all our sons. But those two guys, when the opportunity arose, they took advantage of it.

Dawe is a 6-foot-4, 280-pound sophomore from Pleasant Grove. El-Bakri is a 6-3, 285-pound sophomore from Salt Lake City’s Brighton High. Both have redshirted and been in the program working and learning, getting in position, waiting for a chance.

“It really can be a niche for us going forward,” said Lamb.

You see it on both sides of the line. Sophomore quarterback Joe Critchlow, who stepped in for injured Tanner Mangum and Beau Hoge last year and helped win two games, was on academic scholarship until this summer, essentially a walk-on. In this fall camp, receiver Dax Milne, a walk-on from Bingham High, has seen significant time with the veteran receivers in drills and proven to be a worthy target.

“The challenge of the rising academic profile at BYU with getting walk-ons admitted, the quality of these academic walk-ons over a scholarship has really been key and Coach Kalami Sitake has been very good at rewarding scholarships to walk-ons who have earned it over the last year. It’s been about a dozen guys over the last year or so and he’s got six right now who we believe are scholarship worthy," Lamb said.

“We aren’t going to go and recruit guys over them, we aren't going to get better freshmen than they are.”

Sitake has made a major effort to project which recruits will be the right fit for BYU, even if means losing some talented players to other schools. He is wary of seeing players challenged and fail at BYU. It does neither party any good.

“It’s all about the players,” Sitake is fond of saying.

Said Lamb, “Just in general, if you go around coaching there is a saying, ‘It’s not the ones you are recruiting, it’s the ones you missed on.’ And at most schools that means you thought they were going to become a good player and they didn’t.

“But here, we are learning quickly is it is the ones who never play, the ones who never finish because they run askew of the honor code or academics or whatever. Those are the one that really hurt and its just that happens here more than anywhere else and so our recruiting and strategy have to reflect that. We have to make sure we recruit guys who can thrive here and suit up first, then we try and make them the best they can be.”

So, come next weekend in the desert against Pac 12 dark horse Arizona, if you see some walk-on players make some plays, you’ll understand they are more than just fill-in players for practice fodder and the scout team.

Those guys are Minute Men by design.