Running back Lopini Katoa said Thursday during BYU’s annual football media day that there was a time a few years ago that he couldn’t really wholeheartedly endorse the Cougars’ football program to his friends still in high school.
Now he can.
“This program has changed immensely since I have been here. Kalani’s vision has been implemented and you can see it in the players. You can see there is a buy-in by all the individuals in the program. It is just in a really good place overall. Things are looking really good right now.” — BYU QB Baylor Romney
“It is probably at a place now where I can say I am jealous of the underclassmen,” said Katoa, a senior from American Fork. “That’s how I would put it. There are so many good things happening here, even outside of football. With what is happening off the field as well as on the field, it is a place I would tell people to come to right now. And I really mean that. And I don’t think I could say that the whole time I have been here.”
Athletic director Tom Holmoe and head coach Kalani Sitake kicked off the day with the annual “State of the Program” interview conducted by a BYUtv employee, and they obviously agreed with Katoa. No surprise there. The Cougars went 11-1 last season, easily won a bowl game, were ranked No. 11 in the final Associated Press Top 25 and No. 16 in the final College Football Playoff standings and had five players selected in the NFL draft last April. Not much to nitpick about.
“We had tremendous support and a tremendous season,” Holmoe said.
Is it sustainable? That’s the big question, and the Cougars to a man said the program is at a state where they can see it happening — even against a schedule that is seemingly 100 times more difficult than last year’s. BYU opens the season on Sept. 4 against Arizona in Las Vegas, then embarks on a rugged stretch against Utah and Arizona State.
“I wanted to be here because the schedule was hard,” Sitake said.
There were no major announcements on this particular media day — the first since 2019 because last year’s was canceled due to the pandemic — aside from the creation of Built4Life, BYU’s answer to help student-athletes realize their potential to take advantage of the “name, image and likeness” movement (NIL) sure to be coming their way soon.
It is a “holistic career development program for BYU student-athletes that will prepare them for life beyond BYU athletics and help them capitalize on name, image and likeness opportunities,” Holmoe said.
Katoa said BYU’s on-field success recently, coupled with a locker room makeover, the Built4Life program and seeing more players taken in the NFL draft than any time in recent memory has everyone in Provo smiling.
“It is an elite program and I would tell anybody to come here,” he said.
Holmoe said independent BYU is poised to take advantage of an expanded College Football Playoff to 12 teams, if it comes to that. What if that means joining a conference?
“If a decision is made (on BYU’s future as an independent), then we will have gone all the way up, through our president, and then to Salt Lake,” Holmoe said, referencing the fact that BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints and takes direction from its church-appointed board of trustees.
Later, Sitake weighed in on the potential CFP expansion, calling it a “good thing” for BYU.
“We are not focused on that, though,” Sitake said in a sit-down discussion with print reporters. “We are focused on the first game. We do know we have a 12-game schedule. And we are excited for all 12 of those games, but we are going to attack all of those games. All I care about is that we perform at our best in all 12 games.”
Getting back to the state of the program discussion, Sitake said last year was a steppingstone to bigger and better things.
“I felt like we were really close (to making a NY6 bowl game) last year, so I am hoping we can get that accomplished this year,” he said. “If we perform at our best, we can live with the results and hopefully earn our chance to get another game.”
Entering his sixth season, Sitake has the program in a much better place than it was in 2017, when it went 4-9 and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer was dismissed.
“I like the direction we are going, which means there is innovation, creativity, and the ability to adapt and help the young men on our football team accomplish their goals and their dreams. My focus goes beyond winning games. It is to help these young men achieve their dreams,” Sitake said.
Safety Chaz Ah You, a four-star recruit years ago out of Timpview High, said the program is in the best shape it has been in in years.
“What Kalani is doing for the players is above and beyond what we could ask for as players,” Ah You said. “He’s actually making us feel like a priority, rather than feeling like we are out here grinding for ourselves.
“We feel like we are playing for something bigger than ourselves. I like what he has done with our program.
“I see in the future our recruiting is going to skyrocket, with the way that Kalani has taken our facilities and our program to greater heights,” Ah You continued.
Defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua, a one-time Stanford commit who is returning for a fifth season due to “unfinished business,” said the program has evolved into one of the better all-around programs in the West.
“I feel like everybody considers us a little brother to the Power Fives, for some reason,” he said. “I feel like we are trying to change that narrative, and we are just on the brink of changing that. I feel like this year will solidify it if we have another great year.”
Tight end Isaac Rex said it is a program on the rise.
“Obviously, last year was one of our best years of all time. An 11-1 season is going to be tough to replicate. A big emphasis has been getting guys to the NFL. We are rolling, we are doing our thing. And that’s what we want BYU to be — a consistent powerhouse in the West and also in the nation.”
The three quarterbacks vying to be the starter against the Wildcats — Baylor Romney, Jaren Hall and Jacob Conover — all met with reporters Thursday, but nobody is close to being declared the starter, all three said.
“Yeah, we will find out when we get closer to the game, but I am really comfortable with all three. Last year, we saw all three improve a lot,” Sitake said.
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick was also tight-lipped, but he did say that Hall played flawlessly in 2019 against Utah State before getting injured and “if he is able to stay healthy, he is going to be tough to beat out.”
Romney, who also led the Cougars to wins in 2019, said the state of the program is “fantastic” entering his fourth season in Provo.
“This program has changed immensely since I have been here. Kalani’s vision has been implemented and you can see it in the players. You can see there is a buy-in by all the individuals in the program. It is just in a really good place overall,” Romney said. “Things are looking really good right now.”