Zach Wilson’s selection, remainder of NFL draft, were huge for BYU football. Will they have staying power?
Fifteen former Cougars will get new NFL opportunities this summer. How much will BYU coach Kalani Sitake be able to capitalize on the Cougars’ draft success?
The first weekend in May 2021 was good to a lot of people in the sports world.
Newly minted multi-millionaire Zach Wilson hit the NFL draft jackpot, former BYU golfer Mike Weir won his first tournament in 14 years and Sam Burns took home his first PGA Tour win at the Valspar Championship in Florida.
To that list add the name Kelaokalani Fifita “Kalani” Sitake, BYU’s head football coach and arguably the proudest man alive this month after watching five of the players from the 2020 Cougars football team that went 11-1 and finished the season ranked No. 11 in the final Associated Press Top 25 get drafted, including Wilson at No. 2 overall to the New York Jets and left tackle Brady Christensen in the third round to the Carolina Panthers.
“This is my job — to develop players so they can get to the next level and achieve their goals and realize their dreams of playing in the NFL. So when a night like this happens, there’s an overwhelming sense of pride, but also a lot of gratitude that these young men and their families trusted us to help make their dreams come true.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
Said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick after Wilson was drafted: “It was joy, pure joy. … A year ago, he was fighting to prove that he was our starting quarterback. … He showed a lot of grit and toughness to battle through it. It shows his character, too. He never flinched or felt entitled about it. He just said, ‘OK, let’s compete.’”
Wilson’s coaches — at BYU and Corner Canyon High in Draper — meant so much to him, he said in the post-draft interview room, that he invited several of them to Cleveland, when most prospects just bring their families and head college coach.
The gesture was not lost on Sitake, who added a little spice to the event by showing up in a three-piece suit, and sneakers.
“This is my job — to develop players so they can get to the next level and achieve their goals and realize their dreams of playing in the NFL,” Sitake told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview. “So when a night like this happens, there’s an overwhelming sense of pride, but also a lot of gratitude that these young men and their families trusted us to help make their dreams come true.”
Christensen’s pick on Day 2 of the draft gave BYU two selections in the opening three rounds for the first time since 2002; he was the first BYU offensive lineman to hear his name called since the Philadelphia Eagles made Scott Young a fifth-round pick in 2005.
“The Panthers are getting a great football player and an amazing person,” Sitake said of the 2020 Consensus All-American from Bountiful, who was just a two-star recruit out of high school and seriously didn’t think he belonged at a school such as BYU when he went on his first recruiting visit.
Just when it appeared the party was over, Saturday’s seventh round happened. In the space of the last 10 picks, nose tackle Khyiris Tonga was picked by the Chicago Bears, cornerback Chris Wilcox went to the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and receiver Dax Milne was snatched up by Washington.
Wilcox’s selection brought a lot of smiles in Provo, because he’s the first BYU defensive back to be taken since safety Derwin Gray was a fourth-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 1993. The last BYU cornerback taken in the draft was Brian Mitchell, by the Atlanta Falcons in the seventh round, in 1991.
Only 10 programs in the country had more draft picks than BYU, and the Cougars tied for most picks among Western schools with Oregon, USC and Stanford, and had one more than Washington (four). Not since 2002, when tight end Doug Jolley (second round), defensive end Ryan Denney (second), quarterback Brandon Doman (fifth), running back Luke Staley (seventh) and defensive end Brett Keisel (seventh) were drafted has BYU had five guys picked.
The Cougars went 12-2 that season (2001), but would have only three players drafted the next two seasons combined — Dustin Rykert and Spencer Nead in 2003 and Colby Bockwoldt in 2004 — as the program plummeted under Gary Crowton after a fantastic first year.
BYU’s ability to get prospects drafted sagged even more in Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure; since 2009, when WR Austin Collie (fourth) and FB Fui Vakapuna (seventh), the Cougars have not had multiple players taken in a single draft until this year. No players were taken at all in 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2020.
But that history wasn’t on Sitake’s mind at this year’s draft. Seizing the momentum that the weekend generated for his program was.
“We’ve already started to build on this,” he said. “Recruits are noticing, (transfers) are noticing. Sometimes it takes development. Sometimes it takes a lot of trust and belief. I am just glad that Zach and the others were able to trust us through this whole process and as we keep moving forward.”
Not long after the draft concluded, BYU announced that eight former Cougars received free-agent opportunities in the NFL in 2021: tight end Matt Bushman (Las Vegas Raiders); offensive linemen Chandon Herring (Tennessee Titans) and Tristen Hoge (New York Jets); safeties Zayne Anderson (Kansas City Chiefs) and Troy Warner (Los Angeles Rams); defensive lineman Zac Dawe (Atlanta Falcons); and linebackers Isaiah Kaufusi (Indianapolis Colts) and Kavika Fonua (Carolina Panthers, on a rookie minicamp tryout).
Additionally, two players who exhausted their eligibility in 2019 but didn’t get a pro day in 2020, have reached agreements with NFL clubs. Receiver Micah Simon signed a three-year free agent deal with the Panthers after BYU’s pro day in March, while receiver Aleva Hifo received an invitation to the New Orleans Saints’ minicamp after almost catching on with the Chiefs last year.
“As a coaching staff, we are committed to getting these young men as many opportunities to get drafted or get free-agent opportunities as possible,” Sitake said. “It looks like we are going to have a lot of guys get chances this year, and we are so grateful for that. We are going to push them and get them as ready as we can, and hope these teams keep coming out and watching them and we can make it back here for another one of these drafts in the near future.”
Because of Wilson, mostly, but also due to BYU’s banner draft, Sitake was featured on several national television and radio programs over the weekend of the draft and during the days that followed.
He told the “NFL Now” show that since Wilson was drafted, the 21-year-old had already reached out to several of the Jets’ players, coaches and draft picks to start establishing a connection.
“He’s already trying to find ways to make the Jets a lot better,” Sitake said.
Will BYU be better?
No question, the attention BYU is getting from Wilson’s pick — the highest Cougar taken in the NFL draft in program history — by a team in the biggest media market in the country will pay benefits now and later.
But the questions have to be asked: Is this sustainable? Can BYU really get multiple players drafted in the years to come?
There are certainly skeptics. They point to the fact that there were far fewer players to choose from for NFL clubs this draft, thanks to the pandemic. For instance, the University of Utah didn’t have any players available to be drafted because most of its best guys chose to return in 2021 after getting to play in only five games in 2020.
The draft “showed we have good players in this program, talented players,” Sitake said. “Pro day (which was attended by 31 of the 32 NFL teams) showed what kind of talent we have. We will be fine.”
Shortly after he was drafted, Wilson adopted an “all gas, no brakes” slogan, but as for hyping BYU’s program as a whole, it might be time to tap on the brakes slightly, because arguably no team benefited more from the pandemic — from the season all the way through the draft and free-agent signings, than BYU.
What if the Cougars hadn’t faced a cupcake-laden schedule in 2020? Would Wilson have gone as high? Would a record 15 Cougars (counting Simon and Hifo) be getting NFL opportunities this summer?
The best way for Sitake’s bunch to answer those questions is to put together a similar season against the likes of Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, Boise State, Baylor, Virginia and USC this fall. There might not be a better way to avoid the asterisk that some will place on the Cougars’ 2020 season, and 2021 draft performance, than by putting together another 10-win campaign.
Appearing on 1280 the Zone radio with Patrick Kinahan and David James on the Monday following the draft, Roderick acknowledged that putting five guys into the draft every year will be difficult, but not impossible. Roderick said he’s confident the depth and talent is in place in 2021 to continue the program’s upward trend — during the season and in late April.
Last month, Sitake said developing players for the NFL has been a priority since he succeeded Mendenhall in 2016. The Cougars had Bronson Kaufusi (2016), Jamaal Williams (2017), Fred Warner (2018) and Sione Takitaki (2019) drafted since then, before last weekend.
So it is probably a big ask for the coach to repeat anything close to 2021 again, but he won’t stop trying, obviously.
“I think the league needs our guys and I think we have guys that can go out there and have success, even guys that have been injured, things like that, we need to find a way to get them back on track and find an opportunity to show it on the field and get an opportunity for them to make teams,” he said. “This is something that has been deliberate. We have been focusing on that from the beginning and I wish I could predict it, but there is a big effort here to have that happen.
“I think we will continue it,” he continued. “We have a lot of guys that will be able to join the NFL this year and I believe we will have some next year. I have been saying that the last couple of years now that I think we have a group of guys that can make it to the NFL and make a difference there for their teams.”
The bar has been set. For Sitake and the Cougars, this might be as good as it gets. But don’t tell them that.