Senior Day comes early for the BYU football team this year, thanks to not having a bye week yet and other factors associated with being a college football independent.

Cougars on the air

Idaho State (1-7)

at BYU (7-2)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo


Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM

Saturday, the No. 17-ranked Cougars will honor final-year players in a short ceremony and give them parting gifts before they host Idaho State at 1:30 p.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

With defensive tackle Uriah Leiataua, safety Jared Kapisi and graduate transfer receiver Samson Nacua the only seniors listed on BYU’s 2021 roster, it could be the smallest group of Senior Day honorees in program history.

Or maybe not.

BYU usually lists the 20 or so players who will be honored on Senior Day when it releases its game notes for the upcoming contest, but Monday’s release did not include such a list. Instead, the notes say the following:

“BYU also has several COVID-19 year juniors that could choose to be honored if they do not pursue an additional year granted by the NCAA.”

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Although BYU played 12 games last year in the season altered by the pandemic, the NCAA is allowing the Cougars the extra year of eligibility — just as it is for teams like Utah that played only five games.

Hence, it is unclear how many will chose to return. Twenty-one juniors are on the roster, including starters such as defensive backs Keenan Ellis, D’Angelo Mandell, Malik Moore and Chaz Ah You and defensive linemen Pepe Tanuvasa, Lorenzo Fauatea and Earl Tuioti-Mariner.

Offensively, the junior starters are offensive linemen James Empey, running back Lopini Katoa and receivers Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet. Maybe right now it has (because) we are talking about it and I have to. Man, it is crazy. It has been a long ride — even this one year here. There are a lot of emotions. … But it is going to be fun. It is going to be exciting.” BYU receiver Samson Nacua on his final game at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday

Katoa, Pau’u and Romney have said this will likely be their last season in Provo. Star running back Tyler Allgeier, who is listed as a sophomore but is in his fourth season in the program, will presumably enter the NFL draft in April as his stock continues to soar.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake told the Deseret News in his weekly press briefing Monday that all the juniors can return, if they so desire.

“Everyone else, other than the three, are welcome to come back, obviously,” Sitake said.

Leiataua, Kapisi and Nacua also appeared at the press briefing held via Zoom, and Leiataua and Kapisi said they have no regrets about returning for their final year of eligibility, while Nacua said he’s happy he left Utah for BYU and was able to play in his hometown of Provo his final year with his brother, Puka.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet. Maybe right now it has (because) we are talking about it and I have to,” Samson said. “Man, it is crazy. It has been a long ride — even this one year here. There are a lot of emotions. … But it is going to be fun. It is going to be exciting.”

Sitake said the COVID-19-year allowance has created a lot of uncertainty, but in the end he wants to do right by his players.

“There are some guys that are looking to just be done and move on with life, and there are other guys that are still figuring it out,” he said. “A lot of the guys graduate this December and want to move on. Then there are some that are still deciding what to do.

“I think for us, we will probably just give them all a good goodbye, just in case. Then hopefully they come back. But there will be more than just the three guys (seniors on roster) who will be recognized.”

Sitake said he plans to meet with each player in question individually to discuss their futures.

“We don’t want them to all of a sudden make a decision after Week 11 that they are done and they want to move on, and we never gave them the proper send-off,” he said. “We will probably give them a good send-off just in case, and then try to recruit them to come back again.”

One selling point could be BYU’s 2022 schedule, which includes home games against Baylor and Arkansas and road or neutral-site games at South Florida, Oregon, Liberty, Stanford and Las Vegas (against Notre Dame).

Then again, the Cougars might want to use 2022 to develop players and get them playing experience before they enter the Big 12 in 2023.

As for what was probably the last ultra-competitive game at LES this season, last Saturday’s 66-49 win over Virginia, Sitake echoed what he said after the game: Forcing turnovers and making defensive adjustments in the second half won the game for the Cougars, now 7-2 heading into November’s three games (Idaho State, at Georgia Southern on Nov. 20 and at USC on Nov. 27).

Sitake said the Cougars didn’t suffer any major injuries vs. the Cavaliers, but could still use some time to get injured players such as Gunner Romney and offensive linemen James Empey and Harris LaChance healed up.

After offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program that Empey’s injury is serious and “we are going to miss James,” Sitake was asked if the injury Empey sustained in the 21-19 win over Washington State a week ago is season-ending.

“I have seen some comebacks, and some guys get healthier than others, so I don’t know,” Sitake said, mentioning that Empey is using one of those scooters to get around on one healthy leg. “So he is in that window where there is possibly something later down in this year, or not at all. I don’t think we can say he is for sure done for the year.”

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Sitake said even though the outgoing players will be honored, the focus will still be on the game against 1-7 Idaho State, an FCS team he said is better than its record indicates. He said the Bengals gave Nevada and Weber State good games before fading late.

“I think the most important thing in the game of football is for us to perform at our best and respect our opponents,” Sitake said. “We are looking forward to being on the field with them.”

Idaho State received $475,000 for playing at BYU in 2019, a 42-10 loss, and Saturday’s paycheck for the Big Sky program is expected to be north of that. Sitake said he’s never been in favor of running up the score on opponents, and won’t Saturday if it comes to that, even if the inaugural College Football Playoffs rankings for the 2021 season come out Tuesday night.

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“I think a lot of people know our style isn’t to run up the score on people,” Sitake said. “Secure the win first, and then be respectful of what is going on on the field. That is every week. It doesn’t matter if it is Virginia, Utah or Idaho State. Some weeks it works better than others.”

Because the Cougars are idle next week, ending a streak of 10 straight weeks of games, Sitake said he expects guys to “empty the tank” this week before their long-awaited break.

Speaking of the CFP rankings, which become the focus in November as the AP Top 25 rankings and USA Today/Coaches Poll slide to the background, BYU will almost certainly crack the top 25. But where?

The Cougars are No. 17 in the media poll and No. 20 in the coaches’ survey. Last season, they debuted at No. 14 in the first CFP ranking on Nov. 24, which was disappointing to some because they were 9-0. 

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