Having left open a few spots for February signees and transfers, BYU’s Kalani Sitake announced the bulk of his first signing class as the coach of a Big 12-bound program on Wednesday and focused on the speed, skill and physicality the 19 new additions will bring to the team.
The gut reaction here: That’s not going to be good enough to compete day in and day out in a Power Five conference.
In other words, it looks a lot like most of Sitake’s previous classes, which ranked 84th, 81st and 71st the past three years. A couple late commitments make it possibly Sitake’s best class in his six-year tenure.
This one is ranked No. 55 by the industry leader in team recruiting rankings, 247 Sports.
Yes, Sitake has gotten 21 wins — pending Saturday’s Independence Bowl game against UAB — the past two seasons out of those low-ranked classes, and we all know about the record this year against Power Five and Pac-12 teams.
As much as anything, that record is a tribute to coaching and player development. Few coaches in the country get as much out of their talent as Sitake does. But to quote former coach Bronco Mendenhall, this type of recruiting doesn’t appear “sustainable.”
At least it doesn’t from this perch.
Jeff Hansen of Cougar Sports Insider, part of the 247 Sports network, noted on Twitter Wednesday that the average per-recruit ranking of 84.8 this year is the highest BYU has had since 2010, the Jake Heaps class. That seems cool and all on paper, until one sees that only Kansas in the Big 12 had a lower per-recruit ranking.
Hansen correctly points out that “times are changing, folks.”
BYU's average per recruit ranking of 84.48 this year is the highest the Cougs have had since 2010. That's great news!— Jeff Hansen (@rakoto10) December 15, 2021
BYu's average per recruit ranking of 84.48 is 11/12 (ahead of only Kansas) in the new Big 12.
Times are changing, folks!
But are they changing fast enough? The Big 12 is coming fast.
“We are really excited about the various (position) groups that we have in this signing class, and really excited about the speed as well,” Sitake said on a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday afternoon from Shreveport, Louisiana, where the Cougars had just wrapped up practice. “There are a number of players who will be contributors and who will compete for starting spots right away, and there are some we are going to see in the future, after missions, which is not new to what we do here at BYU.”
Sitake would not give an exact number when asked how many new players will sign in February, but the feeling here is the Cougars need some instant help, particularly on defense.
“I am not tied down to a number. I know there is a limit, so we are going to try to get the team as developed as possible, so if that means adding certain players, we will,” Sitake said. “I don’t know if we will make a living off the (transfer) portal, but they (should) know if they are going to come here they are going to contribute right away — as far as the percentage of transfers coming here and playing. We have a good track record right now.”
It is a formula for success. Imagine where the Cougars would be this season without the Nacua brothers, Samson and Puka, both of whom transferred in from Power Five programs, Utah and Washington.
“We are still looking to sign a number of players who are still out there, specifically in the defensive backfield,” Sitake said, showing he also realizes there are some needs there. “We have another signing day.”
Of the 19 players who signed Wednesday, all but four are from the state of Utah and none are from talent-rich California or Texas. Lone Peak offensive lineman Joe Brown, who flipped from Virginia to BYU just days ago due to the aforementioned Mendenhall resigning, said on Twitter that he will sign his NLI with BYU on Thursday.
“I think the first thing we are going to do is look close to home, and a big part of that is us being able to run camps this summer and see guys … in person,” Sitake said, when asked why there are so many Utah recruits. “We got on it early. … A number of recruits in this class committed early.”
Before they got any other offers, which makes it difficult to tell how much interest there was in them outside of BYU.
Of course, a lot of those Utahns are outstanding players, such as Corner Canyon receiver Cody Hagen, a four-star recruit. Hagen and the McKenzie twins — Marcus and Dominique — were three of the fastest track athletes in the state last spring. The twins are the sons of former BYU running back Brian McKenzie (1996-97) and former BYU track athlete Salote O’Reilly (1996-2000).
“It just so happened that this year there were some really fast in-state guys,” said offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. “They put up some great track times last spring, and we were able to add a couple of those guys to our team. I can’t remember a time during my coaching career when there were better track times than last spring in Utah.”
Roderick was also asked why the Cougars didn’t sign a quarterback. He said it was because they got one from the transfer portal last summer when Boise State QB Cade Fennegan announced he was transferring to BYU.
“Now we feel like we are full there (in the QBs room), unless someone decides to go elsewhere. Then we will try to fill that spot. We are always looking for the best QBs we can get,” Roderick said. “That is one of the things that me and Kalani agreed on when he hired me, is we are going to keep (the QBs spot) as full as we can and get the best quarterbacks we can find.”
Along with Hagen, the other crown jewel of the class is Oregon transfer Kingsley Suamataia, the former five-star recruit from Orem High who signed in November.
But there are few others who look like they can step in and play right away — at least among those not planning to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before enrolling.
The Cougars have done well recently in developing players such as safety Malik Moore and finding walk-ons such as Tyler Allgeier and turning them into stars. Whether that approach can work against the big boys remains to be seen, but at least one of the architects of that approach — assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Ed Lamb — acknowledges the Cougars are making a big step up in level of difficult in 2023.
“We always set out to get the most game-ready players that we can,” Lamb said. “I think there are certain positions at BYU where we have to look for (recruits) that in the past we have called developmental. We feel like with our increased recruiting profile, moving into the Big 12, we will probably be able to lean into maybe more upside recruiting than purely developmental.”
Lamb said the Cougars will never fully move away from their developmental approach “because we feel like that is a hallmark of the way that we coach.”
It has gotten BYU to here, pretty much. But the feeling here is that it is going to take more than just elbow grease and walk-ons to win in the Big 12 — at least consistently.