‘As good as we thought they were’: Why BYU’s offense could be one of its best yet, even without superstar quarterback Zach Wilson
Cougars are loaded, from new starting QB Jaren Hall to standouts at running back, receiver and tight end
Zach Wilson, Dax Milne and Brady Christensen won’t be walking through the doors at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Maverik Stadium in Logan, or the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum near Hollywood.
Saturday’s BYU vs. Arizona game in Sin City (8:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) marks the beginning of a new era for the Cougars’ offense and new starting quarterback Jaren Hall, who will try to pick up where Wilson and company left off.
It won’t be easy.
The Cougars last year averaged 43.5 points and 522.2 yards per game, while often not getting the chance to pad those numbers in the fourth quarter as reserves took over in blowouts.
“Yeah, we have some good players who have played in big games, and that is comforting to know, that we have some experienced players, because of the fact that we don’t know what we are going to get in (the opener).” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
But that’s not to say this offense isn’t as talented as the 2020 version. It is just that the schedule is much more difficult, and Wilson might have been a generational talent.
We will see.
It appears that Hall’s supporting cast could be just as good, if not better, than the pieces Wilson had to work with.
The returnees — offensive linemen James Empey and Blake Freeland, receivers Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u, tight end Isaac Rex and running backs Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier — all say they have improved, while the newcomers, most notably receivers Samson and Puka Nacua and returned missionary tight end Dallin Holker, will give the Cougars more proven offensive weapons than in recent memory, maybe ever.
“Yeah, we have some good players who have played in big games, and that is comforting to know, that we have some experienced players, because of the fact that we don’t know what we are going to get in (the opener),” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday.
Receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake has said since the Nacua brothers transferred in last spring that this could be the deepest receiving corps in school history, and he didn’t back off that sentiment Wednesday in a one-on-one interview with the Deseret News.
“Those guys are every bit as good as we thought they were,” Sitake said of the transfers.
But are they healthy? Rumors have flown for months that Puka is battling the same injury that caused him to miss games at Washington last season, and Samson is having hamstring issues. They are listed as co-starters in the third receiver spot; Romney and Pau’u are WR1 and WR2, as it were.
“They are on the depth chart for a reason, because (they) have made progress,” Sitake said. “(Puka) and Samson look great. They have been practicing. That’s why they made it on there. We have made plans for them to play.”
Junior college transfer Chris Jackson and injury-plagued redshirt freshman Keanu Hill also made the depth chart at receiver. Brayden Cosper sustained a season-ending arm injury in camp and Kody Epps isn’t quite ready to return from a foot injury.
“They have earned it,” Sitake said of Jackson and Hill. “They have proven to handle not just the playbook, but the details of the position as well. They have progressed and we are just really pleased with their development.”
Who is getting the ball the most?
“The volume of reps are to-be-determined, but I anticipate all of the guys on the depth chart playing,” Sitake said.
Of the receivers who didn’t make the depth chart, Sitake said walk-on Hobbs Nyberg, who will handle punt return duties, emerged in camp as a receiving threat and could be in the mix.
“I would anticipate Hobbs being able to see the field eventually,” Sitake said. “Then you got Terence Fall, Kade Moore and Talmage Gunther as guys who are right there after him.”
Romney, who caught 39 passes for 767 yards and two TDs in 2020, said the offense won’t skip a beat because of the continuity factor.
“We had the whole offseason to prepare with coach Roderick,” Romney said. “We know exactly where to be, at exactly the right time. Coach Roderick is a genius offensive mind. We know we can trust him.”
The Cougars are just as deep at the tight end and hybrid fullback spots, with Rex back to build on his 12-touchdown season and Masen Wake ready to punish more would-be tacklers. Holker, who shined in 2018 before a church mission, earned the right to be Rex’s backup with a standout camp.
“We are managing (Holker’s) load and being smart with his reps, just because we have had guys fresh off missions … get injured,” Roderick said. “We got some other tight ends, too, but yeah, he is an impressive guy.”
Those other TEs are Carter Wheat, Bentley Hanshaw, Lane Lunt and Ethan Erickson.
Then there are the running backs: Allgeier and Katoa.
They are listed as co-starters, but Roderick says either could start for most other teams in the country.
Katoa, a better pass-catcher than Allgeier but not as powerful, said the RBs will be the strength of the offense if they are asked to be.
“I think we have weapons all over the field, but if coach A-Rod wants to call five running plays in a row, we will for sure move the ball down the field,” Katoa said. “We just have that mentality that we will do what it takes to help the team.”
Until they’re the ones not walking through that door anymore.