Seniors emerged as leaders to rescue BYU’s season, and their resiliency will be honored in Cougars’ final home game on Saturday
A diverse mixture of 19 players — some who signed back in 2013, some who were part of Kalani Sitake’s first signing class in 2016, and some who joined the team last summer — will receive their senior blankets and be celebrated prior to the 1 p.m. kickoff against Idaho State
PROVO — Ask most of the 19 seniors on BYU’s football team who will be honored on Saturday when the Cougars play their final home game of the season against Idaho State to describe their legacy, and two words are repeated more than any others.
The group is made up of a bunch of survivors, who, reluctantly, in some cases, emerged as leaders, seniors Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Micah Simon and Aleva Hifo said on Monday. They credited coach Kalani Sitake for handing the reins of the team over to the seniors after the Cougars started 2-4 and lost consecutive games to teams they probably should have defeated, Toledo and South Florida.
“We grabbed it and ran with it,” Laulu-Pututau said. “I would say the difference (between this team and others) is the opportunity we have been given to lead. I have never been around guys who have been so close to each other off the field, chemistry-wise. Honestly, we like each other. It is shocking, but there are a lot of teams and a lot of players I have been around, where it is just hard (to unite). They don’t get along. This team honestly gets along off the field. So that is a huge tribute to the success we have had.”
Simon, the receiver who turned into a quarterback — his old high school position — last Saturday and threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Matt Bushman in the 31-24 win over Liberty, said leadership didn’t come naturally to himself or fellow seniors such as defensive backs Dayan Ghanwoloku and Austin Lee. But they stepped up at the urging of Sitake and other coaches when BYU’s season was threatening to fall apart.
“There are a lot of leaders in our senior class, a lot of guys that work hard, a lot of guys who have been in the program for awhile,” said Simon, who graduated last April in exercise science and will likely return to school and get his master’s degree and become a graduate assistant coach if professional football doesn’t work out.
“I hope that the underclassmen see that from us and know that we have been through every kind of season imaginable, and it doesn’t matter,” Simon continued. “We came back to work every week and just continued to get better. Hopefully we can leave that example for those guys.”
BYU will honor these 19 seniors on Saturday
Sam Baldwin, LB; Emmanuel Esukpa, RB; Dayan Ghanwoloku, DB; Mitch Harris, LS; Aleva Hifo, WR; Beau Hoge, QB/RB; Batchelor Johnson IV, WR; Austin Kafentzis, LB; Moroni Laulu-Pututau, TE; Austin Lee, DB; JJ Nwigwe, DL; Trajan Pili, DL; Sawyer Powell, DB; Addison Pulsipher, DL; Thomas Shoaf, OL; Talon Shumway, WR; Micah Simon, WR; Beau Tanner, DB; Ty’Son Williams, RB
As is always the case at BYU, the senior class is a mixture of players from several different signing classes. It includes players such as Laulu-Pututau, who signed way back in 2013 or 2014 and went on two-year church missions, players such as Simon and Ghanwoloku who signed in 2015 and redshirted one season, and players such as Hifo who signed in 2016 — Sitake’s first signing class — and played four straight years. Then there are the relative newcomers — players who transferred in and spent only one or two years in Provo such as running backs Emmanuel Esukpa and Ty’Son Williams.
Williams, who sustained a season-ending ACL injury in the fourth game of the season, against Washington, will likely apply to the NCAA to get his year back via a medical hardship waiver, but is on the list of 19 in BYU’s game notes this week to receive his senior blanket Saturday. Another would-be senior who missed the majority of the season, linebacker Zayne Anderson, is not on the list, perhaps a sign that school officials like Anderson’s chances of getting another shot better than Williams’ chances.
Although Idaho State is a member of the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) with a 3-7 record, Sitake said the Cougars will have plenty of motivation at 1 p.m. Saturday (BYUtv) because it is senior day.
“This week we will be focused on the seniors and sending them out the right way and giving them a good memory of their last home game their senior year,” Sitake said. “I still remember mine. These guys will remember it and I will make sure they have good memories of it.”
Other top contributors in this class include four others who signed in 2013 and served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: receiver Talon Shumway, defensive tackles Trajan Pili and Addison Pulsipher and offensive lineman Thomas Shoaf, a freshman All-American before injuries and the inability to maintain a desired playing weight derailed a promising career.
“No regrets, it has been an amazing experience,” Shoaf said a few weeks ago.
Another player who saw significant playing time early but whose career was cut short by injury, quarterback and running back Beau Hoge, will also be honored, along with one of the more versatile players in program history, the well-traveled Austin Kafentzis.
“All the energy is focused on getting the win for the seniors in their last game in LaVell Edwards Stadium,” Sitake said when asked about the difficulty of getting players excited for a lower-division opponent on a four-game losing streak. “So I am not even worried about that other stuff. We want to go 1-0 this week, win it for the seniors.”
Of the 23 players — 21 high schoolers and two junior college transfers — who signed on Feb. 3, 2016, six weeks or so after Sitake succeeded Bronco Mendenhall, Hifo is the only one who played four straight years without redshirting or going on a mission.
“This senior class is definitely the one that has taken over,” Hifo said. “We struggled early on in the year of fulfilling that role as leaders. But since then, the last couple of weeks especially, we have been able to fulfill that role and understand that this is our team. We are leaders. That’s one word I would use to describe us.”
Cougars on the air
Idaho State (3-7) at BYU (5-4)
At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Saturday, 1 p.m.
Radio: KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM