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An early look at whether BYU can pick up where it left off

Here’s what has to happen for the Cougars to put together back-to-back standout seasons for the first time since Kalani Sitake became head coach in 2016

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BYU football coach Kalani Sitake looks on during a practice last August during fall camp in Provo, Utah.

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake looks on during a practice last August during fall camp in Provo, Utah. The Cougars are coming off a spectacular 11-1 campaign in 2020 and are hoping to maintain that momentum in 2021.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

It has been a relatively quiet summer for BYU football news, which is a good thing because aside from some recruiting developments and acquisitions via the transfer portal, summer news for this program is usually of the negative variety.

No news in July is good news, generally.

Still, with preseason training camp about two weeks away, now seems like a good time to examine the factors that will determine whether the Cougars can repeat their magical 2020 football season, or if they will return to a year of mediocrity like in 2018 and 2019.

Here are five things BYU needs to do to put together back-to-back great seasons for the first time in the Kalani Sitake era:

1) Identify as early as possible the starting QB and give him bulk of the reps

BYU quarterbacks Jaren Hall, from left, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover appeared at BYU Football Media Day last June before Hall won the starting job and had a successful 2021 season.

BYU quarterbacks, from left, Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover answer questions during BYU football media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

With the Cougars’ Power Five-laden schedule hitting them three times in September alone (Arizona, Utah, Arizona State), there’s no time to waste in the search for Zach Wilson’s replacement.

New offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick has been tasked with that assignment, and he said during BYU’s football media day last month that he spends a lot of time thinking about it. Roderick hinted that Jaren Hall will be “hard to beat out” if he’s healthy, and that’s probably the strongest endorsement any coach has given since before spring camp.

“It is a big deal, for sure. It is a big game. I am not going to argue that it isn’t. It is important. But frustration is not the word. Sure, it is a big game. And if you act like it is not a big game, then you are going to keep on getting beat.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick on facing Utah on Sept. 11

As for a deadline to name a starter, Roderick and Sitake say there isn’t one. Maybe there should be. And the No. 1 criteria for picking that starter should be this: Who is most capable of rallying his teammates, gaining their confidence and commanding the huddle?

“I really believe all three (Hall, Jacob Conover, Baylor Romney) can win games for us,” Roderick said. “Two of them have already proven that they can. It is going to be a really tough decision. It is going to be a tough call.”

Roderick said he’s never been a coach with “a quick hook,” meaning he will be patient with whomever he selects the first few games.

“I don’t see anybody just taking this thing over and blowing the other two guys out of the water, because they are all good players,” he said.

Sure, there’s value in waiting until a day or two before the opener against Arizona on Sept. 4 in Las Vegas to keep the Wildcats and their new coaching staff guessing. But there’s more momentum to be gained by identifying your leader as early as possible, and riding with him through most of preseason training camp.

At least, Roderick is keeping an open mind, which is a positive sign.

“Now, if one of those guys clearly becomes the guy, and it is undeniable, then I will just say it,” he said. “But we might hold off until the game. I hope people aren’t mad about that, but we are just looking for every advantage we can to win that first game.”

One other thing: Please, please, please don’t go the rotating-quarterbacks route. That never works.

2) Stay healthy in August, enter September with depth at every position

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The Cougars line up for a play during fall camp in 2020 in Provo, Utah. Surviving camp injury-free should be a priority for the Cougars this August.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

This is not nearly as easy as it would seem. It is an annual balancing act for Sitake and his staff: let the guys play real, live, tackle football — but keep them from getting injured.

Look no further than last year to see how prevalent injuries can be in preseason camp. Junior college transfer running back Hinckley Ropati sustained a season-ending knee injury and All-America candidate tight end Matt Bushman suffered an Achilles injury just days before the opener.

It even happened in spring camp, as probable starting cornerback Micah Harper went down with a knee injury that quite likely will make him miss most, if not all, of the 2021 season.

Like they did last season, the Cougars could probably withstand losing some offensive players, especially in the skill positions, where they are loaded. Not so on defense. Keeping rising stars such as Chaz Ah You, George Udo, Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili and Tyler Batty healthy so they can be ready in September should be a huge priority.

“The expectation is a lot of guys are going to have to step up,” said cornerback Keenan Ellis. “It is going to be tough. There are a lot of new guys with great talent and they are expected to fill some big shoes. I think if we fill that need and stay healthy our defense will be as good as ever.”

3) Don’t look past Arizona, even if Wildcats are picked to finish last in the Pac-12

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Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate (14) throws a pass against Utah during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz.

Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

At the aforementioned media day on June 17, the Cougars to a man said their focus is entirely on the opener against an Arizona team that lost 70-7 to Arizona State in the Territorial Cup. That’s easier said than done, especially with you-know-who on the schedule in Week 2.

Sure, the Utes are opening with Weber State, so they can probably afford to work in some BYU prep during training camp. The Cougars can’t. They are not talented enough, especially on defense. 

Asked if there is a game he’s “most excited about,” Roderick refused to bite last month.

“I might sound really boring, but I am trying to make sure we hammer the lesson into our players’ heads that the game we are most excited about is the next one. We have learned not to talk about end-of-season goals, and what our record is going to be, and what defines a great season.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick

“I might sound really boring, but I am trying to make sure we hammer the lesson into our players’ heads that the game we are most excited about is the next one,” Roderick said. “We have learned not to talk about end-of-season goals, and what our record is going to be, and what defines a great season.

“We have learned to focus more on the process that it takes to win that next game and then you keep stacking those good days one after the other, and at the end of the year you are going to be proud of what happened and there will be something special at the end of that season,” he continued. “I thought we really accomplished that a year ago.”

One of the often-overlooked aspects of last season is how the Cougars began preseason training camp last August not knowing who they would open against, but still put in the work needed to be ready to plaster Navy when that game was added to the schedule late.

“We were getting better,” Roderick said. “And once we got into that season, guys just really learned to appreciate each day. And that is what we are trying to do now. How can we get better today? How can we get better tomorrow? And then we will beat the team in front of us, and then we will go beat the next team. And that’s all we are thinking about right now.”

4) Figure out a way to beat Utah — but don’t lose hope if you don’t

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Utah Utes defensive back Julian Blackmon makes an interception on a pass intended for BYU wide receiver Micah Simon during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. Blackmon returned the pick for a touchdown.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Because last year’s rivalry game was canceled by the Pac-12, the Cougars’ best team in quite some time was not able to get the monkey off its back against the Utes. Utah’s winning streak against BYU is at nine games, which ties the record for most consecutive wins in the rivalry since BYU put together nine straight from 1979-87 and Utah won nine in a row from 1929-37.

It doesn’t take a math major to figure out that the Utes can break the record if they can handle the Cougars again on Sept. 11 in Provo.

It is also quite evident that the Cougars are sick and tired of losing to the Utes, and hearing about it for 365 days, or in this case, two years.

Is this the year BYU breaks through? It will obviously be difficult, with Utah picked to finish high in the Pac-12 and BYU facing a rebuilding year — despite what the Cougars are saying about their ability to keep the pedal to the metal in 2021.

Another question: Will another rivalry loss destroy BYU’s season? That’s what the Cougars have to guard against, because until the College Football Playoff expansion becomes a thing, a loss to anyone most likely dooms them to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, against a team from Conference USA.

Sitake and his staff will have some work to do to refocus their team, and a lot of the goodwill they built with their fanbase from last year’s 11-1 season will be lost, if the Cougars fall for the 10th straight time to their biggest rival.

“Yeah, it is going to be fun to (play) Utah again,” Sitake said. “It is good to get those annual rivalry games that we didn’t get to play last year (vs. Utah and Utah State) back on the schedule.”

Having seen both sides of the rivalry, Roderick, the former OC at Utah, said the frustration doesn’t boil over to the coaching staff, but he knows it means a lot to the fans, and to the way BYU is perceived locally.

“It is a big deal, for sure. It is a big game. I am not going to argue that it isn’t. It is a big game. It is important. But frustration is not the word. Sure, it is a big game. And if you act like it is not a big game, then you are going to keep on getting beat.” — Aaron Roderick

“It is a big deal, for sure. It is a big game. I am not going to argue that it isn’t. It is a big game. It is important. But frustration is not the word,” Roderick said. “Sure, it is a big game. And if you act like it is not a big game, then you are going to keep on getting beat.”

Passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake is quick to point out that most of the players that BYU puts on the field Sept. 11 will have lost to Utah only once, in 2019. In 2018, when the Cougars blew a big lead and fell 35-27, the only players who participated in that game and will be eligible this year are receiver Neil Pau’u, tight end Dallin Holker, cornerback D’Angelo Mandell, linebacker Max Tooley and defensive lineman Earl Tuioti-Mariner.

“It is obviously (frustrating), but the more we talk about it doesn’t take that frustration away, or make it easier,” Fesi Sitake said. “We have 11 other games. And I think that has been one of the issues. People, players included, have put way too much stock in that one game. Trust me, we want to win as much as anybody else. But the more we feature that game, the more we disregard other games. So it is a cliche answer, and you will probably hear guys saying Arizona, Arizona, is all that matters. Because it does. But that doesn’t devalue that game.”

BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark has also seen the rivalry from both sides.

“It means a lot. I coached up there. I know It does mean a lot to them,” Clark said. “But I don’t know how you consider it a rivalry until we win. You get beat nine, 10 years in a row, I mean, it is not really a rivalry. You gotta win to make it a rivalry again.”

And, in a way, validate what the Cougars did last year.

5) Take advantage of one of the better running back combinations in BYU history

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BYU running back Tyler Allgeier runs into the end zone for a touchdown as BYU and Boise State play at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There is a reason running back Tyler Allgeier was named to the Watch List for the 85th Maxwell Award on Monday. He’s that good.

Especially this year, when they are breaking in a new quarterback, the Cougars need to get the ball in Allgeier’s hands as much as possible. He’s a game-breaker, as he showed last year against Boise State with as explosive an offensive play as the Cougars have had in years.

Roderick has promised a return to the BYU offense of old, but he can’t forget that a quarterback’s best friend is a strong rushing attack. The Cougars look poised to have a good one, if they can use Lopini Katoa effectively as well. The senior is especially adept at catching screen passes, making the first defender miss, and turning a short pass into a big play.

“I am just making the most of it and trying to keep the humble side (intact) and having the mindset of staying hungry and being grateful for the opportunities,” Allgeier said.

While a sophomore in eligibility, this will quite likely be Allgeier’s final season in Provo, if he stays healthy. He’s already making some mock NFL draft boards, having rushed for 1,130 yards last year in his first full season as a running back. That total was No. 8 in the nation, and No. 1 among players with fewer than 150 attempts. He should get closer to 175 carries this year, for BYU’s offense to thrive.

“I want the pressure on us,” said BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga. “The more pressure we can take on us, the more it will help out everybody else in the offense, especially with the new quarterback and all that. So hopefully these guys take in on themselves to carry the load.”