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‘I anticipate some separation soon’: BYU coach Kalani Sitake says the starting QB derby beginning to take shape

Assistant head coach Ed Lamb says he has ‘a strong opinion’ on the Cougars’ QB battle between Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover, but isn’t ready to share it with the media yet

BYU QBs Jaren Hall and Rhett Reilly, wearing blue jerseys, leave practice.
BYU quarterbacks Jaren Hall and Rhett Reilly leave practice in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

If BYU’s starting quarterback derby could be compared to a horse race, it would be safe to say the thoroughbreds have gotten out of the gate, jostled a little for position, and are about to hit the far turn.

The home stretch might even be in sight.

In different terms, that’s pretty much how head coach Kalani Sitake described the competition after the first five practices of preseason training camp, practices that were scripted by new offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick weeks ago.

The prevailing notion from media members — who have been afforded less than an hour’s worth of practice viewing time — is that Jaren Hall sprung out the gate quickly, perhaps thanks to his offseason work with former BYU QB John Beck, and is ahead by a nose.

But Sitake said Wednesday afternoon in a Zoom meeting with reporters after photo day activities at the Indoor Practice Facility that there has been little, if any, movement and that Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover are still very much in the hunt.

“As far as separation goes, not highly visible right now, other than all three are much better than they were in spring, and they improve every day,” Sitake said. “It is getting a little more difficult (to separate them), but really it is through no fault of theirs. They are just stepping up and making some big plays.”

Sitake said it is obvious that all three QBs worked extremely hard over the summer to be able to shine when their number is called — Romney said as much Monday when he got the chance to talk to reporters for the first time since June 17’s football media day — and that he still believes any of the three could lead the Cougars to significant wins in 2021.

He said the difficulty meter rises later this week as the pads go on, and some live scrimmaging happens — although he and Roderick are sticking to their statement that QBs will not be tackled until the opener Sept. 4 against Arizona in Las Vegas.

“I anticipate some separation soon, especially when we start doing a lot more 11-on-11 work, and that will probably happen in the next week, week and a half or so,” Sitake said.

The coach also shot down the notion that the offense is well ahead of the defense because that unit has more experienced, returning players than the defense. Until some bonafide hitting takes place, it is too early to tell, he said.

“Right now it is hard for me to say that when everything has been really scripted, (including) the reps and one-on-ones,” he said. “It is not real football when you are looking at the entire process of what we are trying to do and do in practices.”

Sitake confirmed to the Deseret News that the starting quarterback decision will mostly be made by Roderick and new passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake.

“You know, we communicate a lot, so we will be in it all together, but I am going to lean heavily on the guys who have spent the most time with them, and that is those two,” he said. “And then obviously A-Rod is the offensive coordinator and the quarterbacks coach. So the heavy part of it will be his to decide.”

A defensive coach who has been a head coach in the past, assistant head coach Ed Lamb, the former SUU boss, told reporters Monday that he has “a strong opinion” on the quarterback competition, “but that stays with me for now.”

Subsequently asked to say “something nice” about each QB, Lamb said the following:

“Really, Jaren’s leadership presence, charisma, the way he carries himself (is impressive). I think from coaches all the way through the team, there is a real confidence in his ability to go out there and compete and fight and lead the team in an intelligent way.

“Baylor is just like, ice in his veins, makes no mistakes, gets the ball out so quickly. Really is a guy that has a demeanor that sheds attention away from himself. So I think he’s earned the trust of his teammates,” Lamb continued.

“I think other people have said it, or can see it: A lot of reminders of a young Zach Wilson when you watch Jake Conover, the way he carries himself and maybe he learned that from Zach. But he certainly reminds us of that in the way that he never saw a throw he didn’t like. Ultra-confident, and really puts everything he’s got into the game.”

What do their teammates think?

These guys are too savvy to pick sides, too well-coached by Sitake and the other coaches regarding team culture and chemistry to bite on a question regarding their opinions on the three-way race.

“As a defensive player, I feel really comfortable with any of the three battling for the spot,” said Pepe Tanuvasa, the transfer from Navy who is moving from linebacker to defensive end. “Because really, any of the three could do an amazing job.

“Obviously, whenever I see Jaren in, I am worried about his dual threat ability,” Tanuvasa continued. “And then just the pocket presence of Baylor and Jacob is amazing. And so they all bring so many different strengths to the table that I know we are going to be fine with whoever we go with.”

Center James Empey, while saying “I have never really felt a difference regarding whose hands are back there,” also said the eventual decision will be accepted by the entire team.

“All those guys are playing really good right now,” Empey said. “They are all showing good leadership qualities from a quarterback standpoint. We are confident with any one of those guys, as their line and as their teammates. And I know a lot of the offense feels the same way. … We are looking forward to seeing them keep it up as camp goes on.”