A year ago, BYU’s football team opened preseason training camp with more off-the-field questions than concerns over the team itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic had wrecked their 2020 schedule, and some people were wondering on Aug. 3, 2020, why the masked-up Cougars were even practicing at all, considering the first game on their schedule at that time wasn’t until Oct. 16 at Houston.
Of course, athletic director Tom Holmoe worked his magic, the Cougars became the only team in the West to play football in September and BYU put together a special season, going 11-1 against a considerably weaker schedule than originally planned.
Three days after BYU opened camp, a game against Navy to be played on Labor Day (Sept. 7) in Annapolis was added to the schedule to replace Utah for the Cougars and Notre Dame for the Midshipmen, and coach Kalani Sitake’s team was off and running.
Football was back.
That determination to practice those first few days despite not having a September opponent paid huge dividends, not only in the 55-3 crushing of Navy, but throughout the season as the players knew the administration had their backs and were committed to playing football.
What happens in 2021?
The Cougars open camp on Thursday, and while there are still some lingering concerns over the pandemic as COVID-19 case numbers have risen in Utah and throughout the country recently, the focus this year is clearly back on the personnel as BYU embarks on a killer schedule similar to the one that was largely canceled in the summer of 2020.
A theme for this year’s season began developing shortly after superstar quarterback Zach Wilson declared for the NFL draft, continued through spring camp and was talked about endlessly at football media day in June.
In putting together a one-loss season, crushing UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl and finishing with a No. 11 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, the Cougars made themselves a target. They used their finish in 2019 — late-season losses to San Diego State and Hawaii — to motivate them throughout 2020.
Now, their motivation must come from somewhere else, after the only setback in 2020 was a 22-17 loss to Coastal Carolina in a game arranged just two days before it was actually played across the country from Provo.
“Last year’s plan doesn’t work for this year,” Sitake acknowledged when spring camp ended in late March. “So being motivated by redemption worked for last year and that was great. We saw some really good things. This year the plan has to be different. … This year is way different.”
Sitake said the Cougars have to keep that “chip on our shoulder attitude” and play in 2021 like they still have something to prove. He said his program still isn’t where he wants it to be. Complacency is the biggest enemy now.
“There are a lot of things for us to prove,” he continued. “We had a really good year. Don’t get me wrong. But a lot of people still doubt us.”
Throughout the offseason, Sitake said the Cougars “haven’t arrived” and the main ingredients to bake up another special season were hard work and humility.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” he often said. “I am really excited with the hunger I saw in these guys’ eyes. I feel like the guys are ready to prove something.”
What kind of season will be acceptable against a schedule that includes seven Power Five opponents?
Sitake wouldn’t go there during media day, nor would he use words such as “rebuilding” or “reloading.” But anything less than a seven-win season would seem like a big step backwards, and would provide critics who say the Cougars built a breakout season on a weak schedule would have more ammunition.
So it is against that big-picture backdrop that Sitake’s sixth preseason training camp begins in Provo, with the usual concerns over personnel, depth at key positions and, of course, a three-way starting quarterback competition that may or may not open with a pecking order, depending upon who’s doing the talking.
With the opener about a month away — Sept. 4 against Arizona at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas — here are five compelling questions to consider as the month unfolds:
Will Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney or Jacob Conover be the starting quarterback?
As the Deseret News opined two weeks ago, the sooner this question is answered, the better. Identifying the quarterback who can win the most games in 2021 is more critical than any strategic advantages to be gained by keeping it a secret until kickoff against the Wildcats.
Zach Wilson’s replacement will have huge shoes to fill, after the former Corner Canyon High product was drafted with the No. 2 pick by the New York Jets and signed a four-year deal worth $35.1 million last week.
Who enters camp with the inside edge in the rare three-way derby?
Our sources indicate it is Jaren Hall, especially after new offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick famously said during media day that the redshirt sophomore “will be hard to beat out” for the job if he stays healthy.
However, health is a major concern for Hall, who sustained multiple concussions in 2019 when he last played in games for the Cougars.
In seven appearances in 2019, Hall completed 31 of 46 passes for 420 yards and a touchdown with a passer efficiency rating of 151.26, while also rushing for three touchdowns. One of the best athletes on the team, Hall seemingly has a higher ceiling than the other two — at least until the freshman Jacob Conover, a four-star recruit out of high school — gets some live college reps under his belt.
A subset of this question is the timeline for coaches naming a starter. When will they make the call?
Roderick doesn’t seem to be as concerned about keeping it a secret as Sitake, and said at media day that he could have a decision as soon as two weeks into camp.
How ready is Aaron Roderick?
Asked this question during media day, Sitake didn’t flinch.
“Completely ready,” Sitake said. “He was already doing a lot of (his new job description) the last few years.”
The worst-kept secret in Provo last season was that Roderick was doing a lot of the coordinating, and even a lot of the play-calling, long before Jeff Grimes bolted for Baylor and Roderick was promoted to offensive coordinator.
The former BYU receiver and Utah co-offensive coordinator called plays brilliantly in the bowl game when Grimes was not available to travel to Boca Raton for reasons related to the pandemic.
“My role is not much different, to be honest with you,” said Roderick, who was the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach and will retain his title as QBs coach. “I am trying hard not to change things much. We have a good staff. Guys know their jobs. The way jobs are delegated amongst the staff are going to stay the same for the most part.”
Roderick said new passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake’s role won’t change much because the receivers coach was heavily involved in the passing attack already.
“I think changing things up after as good as we were on offense would be a mistake,” Roderick said. “We are going to run the same offense. We are going to have the same staff responsibilities.
“We will have wrinkles. We are not going to do the exactly the same things all the time, but I anticipate our offense being very similar and the way we operate as a staff being very similar to how it has been done.”
What to make of this young and inexperienced defensive line?
Two years ago against decent rushing attacks, BYU’s defensive line struggled to get stops. It wasn’t stout against the likes of Utah, Washington, Toledo, South Florida and San Diego State in losses that doomed the Cougars to a 7-6 season.
Sure, linebackers make the tackles, but if the D line can’t occupy offensive linemen and keep them from getting to the backers, a defense struggles to stop the run.
That was the Cougars in 2019. In 2020, with the now-departed Zac Dawe, Khyiris Tonga and Bracken El-Bakri along the line, the Cougars were solid — except against Coastal Carolina in the aforementioned loss on two days of preparation time.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said at media day that the Cougars would be young and inexperienced on the D line this season, and that was before rising star Seleti Fevaleaki entered the transfer portal.
“If there is anything that is going to keep me up at night, it is we are young at the safety spots, and thin at the defensive end spots,” Tuiaki said.
A couple of returning defensive linemen, redshirt freshman Tyler Batty and fifth-year senior Uriah Leiataua, beg to differ.
“We are replacing some veterans with some guys who are really hungry,” said Leiataua, who is back to complete some “unfinished business” after missing 2020 with a fractured leg.
Batty, who made headlines recently when he signed a name, image and likeness deal with Balmshot, an Idaho-based lip balm company, said the defensive line would be “absolutely OK” when asked about it last month.
“An emphatic yes, to answer that question,” Batty said. “I am super excited for what we are going to be able to do.”
Linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa has been moved to D end and will contribute as a bona fide pass-rusher, Batty said. He’s also excited about the return of Lorenzo Fauatea, Alden Tofa and Atunaisa Mahe from injuries and the progress of former walk-on Gabe Summers and mainstay Earl Tuioti-Mariner. He said newcomers John Nelson and Josh Larsen will add depth.
“The D line has a lot to learn, but I don’t think we need to be too worried about the D line,” Batty said. “I think we are going to be great.”
Is Washington transfer Puka Nacua healthy enough to make an instant impact?
On paper, BYU could have its best group of receivers in decades, maybe ever. It could also have three starters of Pacific Islander descent for the first time ever, but that’s a possible story for another day.
At issue right now is the health of Washington transfer Puka Nacua, the former four-star recruit from Orem who transferred to BYU to be closer to his ailing grandmother and mother along with his brother, former University of Utah receiver Samson Nacua.
Rumors have swirled for months that Puka Nacua is still having issues with his ankle, although he looked fine at media day in June and said then that he expects to be 100% in August.
“With the receivers and tight ends we have here, we are going to be tough to stop,” Nacua said.
Another receiver expected to have a big season is Gunner Romney, but he, too, has battled injuries throughout his career. When he’s healthy, Romney is as good as anybody the Cougars have had at receiver the last decade, and that includes NFL-bound receiver Dax Milne.
Romney caught 39 passes for 767 yards and two touchdowns in 2020, and came close to scoring at least a half-dozen other times, prompting some to wonder aloud if he holds the unofficial record for getting stopped inside the 1-yard-line.
Other receivers to keep an eye on this season are junior college transfer Chris Jackson, Texas’ Keanu Hill, Kody Epps and Terence Fall.
“I have some hard decisions to make, but it is a problem I like to have,” Fesi Sitake said. “Having a lot of talented players, a lot of depth, makes me really have to lock in and decide who is going to take the bulk of the reps.”
Can assistant head coach Ed Lamb coach the safeties to success?
Defensive line isn’t the only position on defense where the Cougars have some big shoes to fill. They lost stalwarts Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner at safety, both of whom are currently trying to make NFL rosters as free agents.
Having moved back to coach the safeties after coaching the linebackers the past few years, coach Ed Lamb knows he has some work to do.
“I am excited about that challenge and enjoy the guys who are there,” he said in June.
Of course, the biggest name is Chaz Ah You, who played linebacker last year before he sustained a season-ending injury against Navy. Ah You played safety in high school at Timpview and a little bit his freshman year of college.
“He’s got game experience,” Lamb said. “We can count on him.”
Who will be Ah You’s running mate?
Junior Malik Moore, the 6-foot-1, 186-pounder from San Diego, is listed as the starter at free safety on the post-spring depth chart.
“He had a good spring,” Lamb said.
Lamb said Hayden Livingston, newcomer Talan Alfrey, Ammon Hannemann and converted receiver Javelle Brown are also in the mix. Cornerback Micah Harper could be asked to move to safety, when he’s fully recovered from a knee injury, and versatile athlete George Udo is also a possibility to play alongside Ah You.