Is this the deepest and most talented collection of quarterbacks in BYU football history?
Three quarterbacks on Cougars’ 2019 roster have started games that ended in victories; Jaren Hall looks to become the fourth next week when BYU travels to Logan to take on Utah State in the battle for the Old Wagon Wheel
PROVO — Head coach Kalani Sitake, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick said last summer that BYU might have its deepest and most talented group of quarterbacks in recent memory in 2019.
They said incumbent starter Zach Wilson’s backups — Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Joe Critchlow — were all capable of starting games and leading the Cougars to wins, as Wilson did four times in 2018. Those bold statements, which were written off by some as nothing more than preseason hype and coaches trying to give their guys hope and confidence, are coming closer to fruition than anyone could have imagined back in August.
“It just shows all the hard work coach (Jeff) Grimes and coach (Aaron) Roderick have done with those guys. They have had them ready.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
Wilson and Romney have already led BYU to victories over Power Five and/or nationally ranked opponents, Tennessee, No. 24 USC and No. 14 Boise State. The Cougars could have had a fourth quarterback on their roster with a victory as a starter, but they fell 27-23 to South Florida after Hall had to leave the game with concussion symptoms and BYU leading 23-21 in his first start. Romney-led drives after USF took the four-point lead fell short.
Of course, fourth-stringer Critchlow, listed as a sophomore for eligibility purposes but quite likely in his final season on the team, guided the Cougars to wins over UNLV and Hawaii in 2017 after season starter Tanner Magnum sustained a year-ending Achilles injury against Fresno State.
BYU has never had four quarterbacks on its roster at a given time with at least one victory under his belt as a starter. Assuming Hall clears concussion protocol before next Saturday’s game at Utah State (8 p.m., ESPN2), if he hasn’t already, that opportunity could come soon.
Can any program in the country boast that?
BYU had three game-winners in 2012 — Riley Nelson, Taysom Hill and James Lark — and nearly three in 2017 but two-game starter Beau Hoge lost his first start, against Wisconsin, and was knocked out of the second and last start of his college career, against Utah State as the Aggies cruised to a 40-24 win with Koy Detmer Jr. finishing the game for the Cougars.
“It just shows all the hard work coach Grimes and coach Roderick have done with those guys,” Sitake said after Romney threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in the 28-25 upset of Boise State. “They have had them ready.”
BYU’s 11 different starting quarterbacks since 2010
(Number of starts that season in parenthesis)
2010 — Jake Heaps (10), Riley Nelson (3)
2011 — Jake Heaps (5), Riley Nelson (8)
2012 — Riley Nelson (9), Taysom Hill (2), James Lark (2)
2013 — Taysom Hill (13)
2014 — Taysom Hill (5), Christian Stewart (8)
2015 — Taysom Hill (1), Tanner Mangum (12)
2016 — Taysom Hill (12), Tanner Mangum (1)
2017 — Tanner Mangum (8), Beau Hoge (2), Joe Critchlow (3)
2018 — Tanner Mangum (6), Zach Wilson (7)
2019 — Zach Wilson (5), Jaren Hall (1), Baylor Romney (1)
Romney was so ready that the coaches have a decision to make on Nov. 2 in Logan. Do they start Hall or Romney? Wilson (fractured thumb) won’t be back in the mix until the end of the month, possibly later, according to a source familiar with his recovery process. Does he get his job back if the Cougars are on a lengthy winning streak?
Hall’s expected return “is kind of a day-to-day thing, so that’s good news,” Sitake said last Saturday. “We have a bye week, so we will see how it goes. Competition is really good for us and we will see which one is going to be best (against USU).”
The Cougars didn’t use the run-pass option (RPO) formations against BSU with Romney at QB as much as they did against USF with Hall or with Wilson the first five games. That was somewhat ironic because Romney got the edge over Critchlow to replace Hall at USF because he’s said to be better at the RPO than the sophomore who had much more game experience.
Tough decisions on which quarterback to play are nothing new to Roderick, who experienced it a lot in his time as Utah’s co-offensive coordinator.
“It is part of the game, and nobody is going to feel sorry for us,” he said before the BSU game. “We will be ready to play with whichever guy we think gives us the best chance to succeed.”
Senior safety Austin Kafentzis has also taken snaps this season, mostly in the “scrum” formation in short yardage situations. The fifth and final quarterback on BYU’s roster is Rhett Reilly, a freshman walk-on returned missionary from Valley Center, California, and the cousin of former Utah defensive star Trevor Reilly.
Tight end Matt Bushman said there was no sense of desperation when coaches told the team that Hall couldn’t play against the Broncos.
“We trusted Baylor, and the coaches trusted us,” he said.
The Cougars should be used to it. Quarterback injuries have been a constant at BYU for most of the last decade. Romney, a walk-on, was the 11th QB to start a game for BYU since the 2010 season. Only in 2013, Taysom Hill’s sophomore season, has one BYU quarterback started every game.
How snakebit is BYU at the important position? Consider that Saturday’s game against Arkansas will mark the first time in coach Nick Saban’s 13 seasons at Alabama that his starting quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa) will be out with an injury.
Longtime BYU football observers say the depth hasn’t been tested this much since 1992. After sitting behind Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer in 1991, John Walsh started in the opener against UTEP, but was injured in the 17-10 loss to UCLA and replaced by Steve Clements, who started against Hawaii the following week but threw just three passes before getting injured.
Clements was replaced by Ryan Hancock, who made the next eight starts but sustained a torn ACL in the regular-season finale, a 31-22 win over Utah. Tom Young became the fourth Cougar to start a game at quarterback in 1992, the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day in Hawaii, a 23-20 loss to Kansas in which Young threw for 262 yards and rushed for 45 but was sacked six times for minus-51 yards.
The Cougars are hoping they don’t have to turn to a fourth starter in 2019. But if it happens, they say they will be ready.
And that’s not hollow preseason hype.