The competition to replace No. 2 NFL draft pick Zach Wilson as BYU’s starting quarterback in 2021 has dominated headlines during preseason training camp, and rightfully so.
Quarterback is obviously the most important position in football, and BYU coaches know they absolutely have to nail this one, given their rugged September schedule of Arizona, Utah and Arizona State.
There’s no margin for error.
As of Monday, Jaren Hall, Jacob Conover and Baylor Romney were all still candidates to be the starter, although the Deseret News reported Saturday after the second scrimmage of camp that Hall was in the lead. An announcement could come any day now.
With camp wrapping up Tuesday, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told the Deseret News last week and again on Saturday that he has already told each QB where he stands if the season started today. Whoever is named the starter will begin getting most of the reps on Wednesday when BYU turns its attention to preparation for the opener against Arizona on Sept. 4.
“I think we are headed right down that timeline (Roderick) gave you,” coach Kalani Sitake said.
Said Roderick: “It is becoming pretty clear. If you went and asked the players right now, they could probably tell you.”
What about the other position battles in camp?
First, it must be said that there aren’t really that many — a lot fewer than in most years, it seems.
When BYU releases its first depth chart next Monday, don’t expect to see a lot of “ors” or whatnot. Do expect to see a lot more than 11 positions listed on defense. For example, the post-spring depth chart distributed at media day in June had 18 positions listed on defense, positions such as “Frodo” and “Joker” and “Rover” — which are hybrid linebacker/defensive back positions in coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s scheme.
The starters are mostly clearcut across the board; aside from the three-way QB derby, the most intrigue surrounds a few backup spots and, possibly, at one of the starting safety spots and one of the cornerback spots.
Here is the Deseret News’ annual post-fall camp stab at what the depth chart will look like for the opener (see accompanying chart below), with the reminder that it could change a bit when some high-profile transfers get more comfortable in the system and the caveat that media members were allowed to watch less than an hour of practices in August:
Offense has very few question marks
Quarterback: Assuming Hall, who always seems to be mentioned first when coaches talk about the derby, is named the starter, one of the more interesting aspects of the QB competition will be the backup. We’re leading toward Baylor Romney, based on his experience edge over freshman Jacob Conover.
“I would just say that we feel really good about all three quarterbacks,” Sitake said.
Coaches have reminded the quarterbacks that just four years ago, during that forgettable 2017 season, three different quarterbacks started games, and four logged significant playing time.
That means redshirt freshman Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, a good candidate to be the scout team quarterback, shouldn’t dismiss his chances of seeing some action. Nick Billoups, the walk-on transfer from Utah, can play up to four games and still call it his redshirt year.
Running back: Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa, both in quite likely their last year at BYU, are clearly RB1 and RB2, and interchangeable at that.
There was some mystery surrounding RB3, the third-stringer, until Roderick said after the first scrimmage that converted receiver Miles Davis, a freshman from Las Vegas, has emerged to fill that role.
“That guy is a good player, and he is going to play for us,” Roderick said.
Other running backs who could be used include junior college transfer Hinckley Ropati and former Lone Peak and 2019 star Jackson McChesney, who were both injured in 2020. Quarterback-turned-RB Mason Fakahua has had some moments in camp, while Sione Finau and Beau Robinson could join the team on Aug. 30 when the roster limit is expanded to 123 players.
Receiver: Receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake said last Thursday that the depth chart for receiver “is taking shape,” but he wasn’t quite ready to divulge it.
“I can say that Neil (Pau’u) and Gunner (Romney) … we are going to be investing heavily in them,” he said. “They are proven guys.”
More often than not, BYU puts three receivers on the field at the same time, so we are going with Washington transfer Puka Nacua as the third starter at WR, although he hasn’t been 100% in camp due to a lingering foot injury.
“The Nacua brothers, they are on a limited basis right now,” Fesi Sitake said. “But when they go, they have shown they got the playbook down and can make plays on the ball when it comes their way.”
After the second scrimmage, Kalani Sitake said Puka Nacua “went full go” and had been doing that for the last few days.
“He looks really good,” Kalani Sitake said.
Beyond Romney, Pau’u and the Nacua brothers, Fesi Sitake said Keanu Hill, Chris Jackson and walk-on Hobbs Nyberg were looking good and could jump into the rotation. Junior Brayden Cosper sustained a season-ending injury last week. Sitake said redshirt freshman Kody Epps is being worked back in slowly after a “foot deal” but is ready mentally.
Tight end: Having caught 12 touchdown passes in a spectacular freshman season in 2020, Isaac Rex is back for more and capable of another big season. He’s the starter, hands down.
It appears that returned missionary Dallin Holker, who was solid in 2018 before his church service, is Rex’s backup. Coaches have raved about Holker throughout camp.
“We knew those guys were good, but they are all better than they used to be,” Roderick said. “They are getting better each day. That’s cool to see.”
Sitake said Holker returned better than he left, if that is possible.
“I would love every player to go serve the mission (Holker) served, because he is in great shape, looks really good,” Sitake said. “He’s got two weeks left to perfect his craft. But he’s really good and goes really well with what we have got with Isaac Rex and Masen Wake and the other guys in that group.”
Wake is more of a fullback than a TE, but hangs out in the TEs room and will definitely see the field in some role or another. Other tight ends to watch are Carter Wheat, Lane Lunt and Bentley Hanshaw.
Offensive line: The starting five is set at offensive line, and has been since last spring: Blake Freeland at left tackle to replace the great Brady Christensen, Clark Barrington at left guard, James Empey at center, Connor Pay at right guard and Harris LaChance at right tackle.
“I am just really happy with the coaching staff that we have and the way they prepare these guys,” Sitake said.
It is hard to get a handle on the backups without having seen any scrimmages, but the five names that most commonly come up when discussing the second five are Brayden Keim at left tackle, Seth Willis at left guard, Joe Tukuafu at center, Tysen Lewis at right guard and Campbell Barrington at right tackle.
Tukuafu and Campbell Barrington can also play guard, so those two could be considered backups at multiple positions. At any rate, the Cougars have a solid group of offensive linemen, new OL coach Darrell Funk has said almost since the day he was hired.
Defense refuses to take a back seat
By most accounts, the defense hasn’t been pushed around by a more-experienced offense in BYU’s two scrimmages. That can be interpreted several ways, but let’s just say the conventional thinking going into preseason training camp was that the offense would dominate. So defensive coaches are relatively happy.
Defensive line: What was supposed to be a weakness could be a strength, if the Cougars can find adequate replacements for three departed starters and a key contributor (Seleti Fevaleaki) who transferred to Snow College.
Tuiaki rotates as many as eight defensive linemen in per game, so our projections are based more on who should get the most playing time as opposed to who may start.
“We feel good about the personnel,” Tuiaki said. “We have a lot of big bodies in there.”
Several of those guys have seen a lot of action in their careers, which is why we’re going with Tyler Batty, Atunaisa Mahe, Earl Tuioti-Mariner and Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua as the starters.
Linebacker-turned defensive end Pepe Tanuvasa has drawn positive reviews from teammates and coaches alike, so he makes our two deep, along with Lorenzo Fauatea, Caden Haws and Gabe Summers.
“Overall, just as a front, I feel pretty good about us,” Tuiaki said. “It is hard to tell with guys that don’t have experience. We have a lot of young guys at the edges that don’ have a lot of experience.”
Beyond the eight listed here, Sitake has said that freshmen Jacob Palo, Mike Petty, Fisher Jackson, John Nelson and Josh Larsen have been solid in camp.
Alden Tofa and Alema Pilimai continue to battle lingering injuries that have hampered their careers.
Linebackers: New linebackers coach Kevin Clune knows it, and he’s repeated it several time: He inherited an outstanding group of players at the linebacker position.
The starters are set: Keenan Pili in the middle and Payton Wilgar and Max Tooley on the edges.
“At linebacker, those guys are playing at a really high level mentally,” Clune said after Saturday’s second scrimmage. “That is really carrying over every day in practice. I really am fired up with that position group and how they are doing, and how the front is working together.”
If there is a concern, it is that the backups don’t have much experience.
Clune said a second-stringer to watch this season is former Olympus High star Ben Bywater, who is Wilgar’s primary backup at a position the Cougars call flash linebacker or outside linebacker.
Bywater “was injured last season and is really coming on, really playing smart,” Clune said. “He is playing a number of different positions and has handled all that mental load well. He is flying around, doing some things. He’s fast, he is strong and is a guy that is going to show up that maybe you didn’t see last year.”
Morgan Pyper is emerging as Pili’s backup at Mike, while the “Rover” spot manned by Tooley is somewhat thin behind the Bountiful High product with the injury suffered by Tavita Gagnier. Jackson Kaufusi is in the mix there, but he’s also battled some health setbacks in camp.
Cornerbacks: Remember when this was always a question mark for the Cougars? Remember no more.
Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford says this is the deepest group of corners he’s had at BYU, led by veterans D’Angelo Mandell, Keenan Ellis and Shamon Willis. It would be even deeper, but freshman Micah Harper sustained a season-ending knee injury in spring camp.
Gilford’s top five guys are probably interchangeable, but for now we’re going with Mandell and Ellis as the starters and Willis and Isaiah Herron as the backups.
That said, don’t be surprised if a couple of transfers — Utah State’s Jacob Robinson and Oregon State’s Kaleb Hayes — are on the two-deep when it comes out Monday. The position is that deep for BYU.
Junior college transfer Jacques Wilson is still making his way back from an injury, while walk-on Ethan Slade was the star of the first scrimmage with two picks.
Safeties: The most wide-open position on the defensive side for the Cougars could be at strong safety, as contenders line up to play alongside blossoming star Chaz Ah You.
Junior Malik Moore has the most experience, but has been wildly inconsistent when he’s played in the past. Big things have been predicted for freshman returned missionary Talan Allfrey, but he’s reportedly injured.
“We got a lot of guys that are rotating through there,” Tuiaki said. “Obviously, having Chaz and Malik coming back with experience has been huge for us.”
Tuiaki said fifth-year senior Jared Kapisi, juniors Mitchell Price and Matt Criddle and redshirt sophomore Hayden Livingston are also being considered.
“George Udo is coming off an injury,” Tuiaki said. “We are kinda playing it slow with him, but we anticipate that he is going to be a big contributor for us this year too, once we are confident that he is 100% and going.”
Special teams are elite
Special teams coach Ed Lamb has some of the best specialists in the country with which to work and is eager to show off all this group can do.
Kicker: Lou Groza Award finalist Jake Oldroyd is one of the top kickers in the country. The Cougars look as strong at this position as they have been in years.
Punter: Sitake said after the first week of preseason training camp that Ryan Rehkow was already bombing punts, although the 6-foot-5 athlete looks more like a tight end or linebacker.
Return guys: Lamb likes the way former Sky View star Caleb Christensen returns kicks fearlessly. This spot is his again this year, but don’t count out RB3 Miles Davis either.
At punt return, Hobbs Nyberg emerged last year and should be the guy again this year.
Long snapper: Lamb said midway through camp that Austin Riggs and Britton Hogan were locked in a good battle. We will go with Riggs here, but both should play at some point.
BYU’s projected depth chart, 2021
QB 3 Jaren Hall — 16 Baylor Romney
RB 25 Tyler Allgeier — 4 Lopini Katoa
WR 18 Gunner Romney — 0 Kody Epps
WR 2 Neil Pau’u — 45 Samson Nacua
WR 12 Puka Nacua — 5 Chris Jackson
TE 83 Isaac Rex — 32 Dallin Holker
LT 71 Blake Freeland — 64 Brayden Keim
LG 74 Clark Barrington — 72 Seth Willis
C 66 James Empey — 52 Joe Tukuafu
RG 70 Connor Pay — 73 Tysen Lewis
RT 76 Harris LaChance — 74 Campbell Barrington
DE 92 Tyler Batty — 55 Lorenzo Fauatea
NT 62 Atunaisa Mahe — 95 Caden Haws
DT 91 Earl Tuioti-Mariner — 98 Gabe Summers
OE 58 Uriah Leiataua — 45 Pepe Tanuvasa
OLB 34 Payton Wilgar 33 Ben Bywater
MLB 41 Keenan Pili — 10 Morgan Pyper
OLB 31 Max Tooley — 38 Jackson Kaufusi
LC 5 D’Angelo Mandell — 29 Shamon Willis
RC 2 Keenan Ellis — 11 Isaiah Herron
SS 12 Malik Moore — 28 Hayden Livingston
FS 3 Chaz Ah You — 26 Mitchell Price
K 38 Jake Oldroyd
P 24 Ryan Rehkow
KR 4 Caleb Christensen
PR 23 Hobbs Nyberg
LS 84 Austin Riggs