PROVO — How can Kalani Sitake make BYU football great again, or at least get the independent program a couple first downs north of average?

That question has been debated ad nauseam since the first person of Tongan descent to become a head college football coach got the job nearly four years ago. Better facilities, more money for assistant coaches, less stringent academic requirements and even the abolishment of the honor code (for football players, at least) for which BYU is known have been suggested.

Here’s another one: Somehow persuade some of the top high school football players in the country who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith that owns and operates BYU, to don Cougar blue. Royal or navy, it doesn’t matter. Just get those guys to Provo.

Anyone who has even casually followed BYU football the past decade knows that hasn’t been happening. And another reminder comes Saturday as the resurgent Cougars, a surprising 2-1 after overtime wins over Tennessee and USC, welcome No. 22 Washington to LaVell Edwards Stadium.

The game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. MDT and will be televised in the western two-thirds of the country by ABC (Channel 4). It will be shown on ESPN2 in the East.

National powerhouse Washington (2-1) has several Latter-day Saints on its roster, but the most notable one is four-star freshman receiver Puka Nacua, brother of former BYU standout safety Kai Nacua.

Puka Nacua prepped at Orem High, a nine-minute drive from BYU, and was the 2018 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year and the Deseret News’ Mr. Football last fall. He broke almost every state receiving record imaginable, including most career receptions (260), most career yards (5,226) and most career touchdown receptions (58).

It was the dying wish of the late Lionel Nacua of Las Vegas that all of his sons play for his church’s school, BYU. But after oldest brothers Kai and Isaiah chose the Cougars (Isaiah never made it on the field), receiver Samson Nacua picked Utah. He is in his redshirt junior season and was not highly recruited.

However, the youngest of the four sons of Lionel and Penina Nacua signed with the Huskies last February after having offers from most of the top programs in the country. BYU only received a passing glance from arguably the best receiver in state history, despite Kai’s success in Provo.

Puka Nacua has played in all three of UW’s games and made a 28-yard touchdown catch in last Saturday’s 52-20 win over Hawaii. Another hometown star who got away, Provo High’s Ty Jones, has yet to play this season after sustaining a wrist injury last spring and a thumb injury in August. He caught 31 passes for 491 yards and six TDs last year, including a 9-yard reception in the 35-7 drubbing of BYU on Sept. 29 in Seattle.

Neither Nacua nor Jones could be interviewed for this article because UW does not allow its players to speak to media members who cover opposing teams, a policy that is not unique to the Huskies. Also, UW does not allow its freshmen or injured players to do interviews, so even Seattle-based reporters have been unable to talk to either Utahn this season.

Sitake said Monday that he hopes Nacua doesn’t do his talking with successful plays on the field Saturday. “If you have eyes, you watched what he did in high school football,” Sitake said. “He’s an amazing player, a great talent. I know him probably more personally (than most) because I have coached his brothers, had Kai here. He has that toughness that comes with that family. He’s just a great kid.”

But he’s a Husky, and he’s certainly not the first player from a BYU family to spurn the Cougars. Utah’s Britain Covey and former Ute Chase Hansen come to mind. There are dozens of others.

Washington’s Ty Jones stretches during an NCAA football practice Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in Seattle. | Elaine Thompson, AP

“Just looking forward to defending all of them — Puka and Ty and all of them that are from this area,” Sitake said. “I wish them the best, just not in this game. It has been fun to watch them on film and stuff like that. I will cheer for them after this week. But not this week.”

Last week, USC brought to Provo another player that BYU once coveted, defensive tackle Jay Tufele, a former Bingham High star in South Jordan. The sophomore made three tackles.

How can Sitake get more local stars and high-profile church members to BYU? Another win over a ranked, Power Five program will certainly help.

“We just need to get the guys that fit our program, and we as a coaching staff and a program need to make sure that we have that mindset of introducing our program to others, those that may not know much about it.” Sitake said. “But the ones that love BYU, we need to make sure that we do what we can to get those recruits here. It is a good sign that there is good football and good local talent everywhere. They are going to lots of different places.”

The fourth-year coach with the 22-20 overall record reiterated that BYU isn’t for everyone, but should at least be on the radar of every high-profile Latter-day Saint recruit.

“For us, it is making sure that the guys that we recruit, whether they are preferred walk-ons or scholarship guys, fit what we are trying to get done here as a team and fit the mission of the school.”

Cougars on the air

No. 22 Washington (2-1) at BYU (2-1)

View Comments

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (MDT)


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.