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How big of boon will Big 12 membership be for BYU recruiting?

If you believe Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, erasing stigma of non-P5 status makes a difference

A Big 12 Conference logo is displayed on a goal line pylon before Duquesne played TCU in Fort Worth, Texas.
In this Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, file photo, a Big 12 Conference logo is displayed on a goal line pylon before Duquesne played TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. The Big 12 has extended membership invitations to BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston to join the Power Five league. That comes in advance of the league losing Oklahoma and Texas to the Southeastern Conference.
Ron Jenkins, Associated Press

When highly recruited Columbine High (Colorado) athlete and Latter-day Saint Andrew Gentry committed to Bronco Mendenhall and the University of Virginia, a part of his decision was his desire to play for a Power Five program.

The Cougars were right there, recruiting Gentry for years. So were some 30 other schools, but Gentry chose Virginia. Credit Mendenhall and his staff for their pitch and building relationships over the years, but Virginia’s P5 badge had something to do with where Gentry wanted to play.

Is it too early to tell if future Big 12 membership gives BYU coach Kalani Sitake and his staff a bump in recruiting, a chance to convince a player like Gentry to come to Provo?

The answer could come sooner than later.

Equal to or just as important in the recruiting equation with a Big 12 badge is a myriad of key trends like wins, being ranked in the top 25, landing players in the NFL, and believe it or not, a win over rival Utah.

The No. 15-ranked Cougars (3-0) have had two home wins in a packed LaVell Edwards Stadium when hosting recruits this fall. The atmosphere was scripted almost perfectly with wins over Utah and Arizona State of the Pac-12.

Recruits went to social media to report they were impressed, including Rigby High (Idaho) offensive tackle Talin Togiai, who committed to Sitake’s staff the day after the Big 12 invite and win over Utah. Togiai had offers from Utah and Nebraska.

When Gentry signed with Virginia back in December 2020, he told the Denver Post his decision to sign with the Cavaliers resonated because he could take two years and serve a Latter-day Saints mission and feel supported by the Virginia recruiters, most of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“It’s very similar to BYU in regards to working with missionaries, and at Virginia,” said Gentry, “I can still play Power Five football.”

Jeff Hansen of Cougarsports Insider and part of the 247sports network, predicts BYU’s Big 12 membership will make a difference in how P5 recruiters can play that card in the long run.

“Definitely, yes,” said Hansen. “From a football standpoint, BYU can now offer everything that Virginia can. As long as BYU continues winning, they can make the strong argument that they offer a product that is better than what UVA does.”

Recruiting is all about momentum. But don’t discount the Big 12 membership being deployed as a talking point right now.

You only have to look back at Utah’s entry into the Pac-12 in 2010 to see this in action.

In summer 2010 I reported on Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s remarks to a Seattle radio station during football media days in which he addressed the impact of being in a P5 league.

“No question about it, and we have gone head-to-head with the Pac-10 several years now and we have won our fair share of those battles,” Whittingham said. “But the majority of those battles that we lost, that was most typically the overriding factor, was, ‘Hey, we want to be in a BCS conference where we are guaranteed to be in the Rose Bowl if we take care of business and that type of thing,” said Whittingham.

“So, like I said, we don’t have that stigma attached to us anymore and we are hoping that it will make recruiting that much more productive.”

Whittingham explained it well. In ensuing months, Utah made inroads in recruiting once the “stigma” of not being in a P5 league abated.

Momentum built for the Utes.

It was BYU momentum, plus family issues, that brought Puka Nacua to BYU from Washington and his older brother Samson from Utah right after the Cougars’ 2020 season and 11-1 finish. Added to that was the influence of having the success of Zach Wilson with then quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick, and receivers coach Fesi Sitake.

Even with Big 12 membership, BYU’s basic theme is not going to change with lofty admission standards and requirements to adhere to the school’s strict Honor Code. In that sense, BYU’s recruiting universe remains fairly selective, but the new league will open doors. A recruit like Puka Nacua out of Orem may have chosen BYU originally if the Cougars were a Power Five program three years ago.

“In the short term, there probably isn’t a huge impact,” said Hansen. “The Big 12 invite won’t supersede relationships that have been in the making for the last couple of years for the 2022 class. It could swing a player or two down the stretch, but overall, the impact initially will be nominal.”

Where it could be a factor immediately is the transfer portal.

Sitake told reporters Monday that he was working the transfer portal before the NCAA ever adopted the rule. “I released players to transfer and even play against us,” he said. “We will be ahead of the times and will be with the times,” Sitake predicted.

Hansen can envision it.

“It could have a big impact after the season in the transfer portal. BYU will enter the portal with a new arrow in its quiver. That could be a big deal, depending on the type of transfer. BYU might not be playing in the Big 12 fast enough,” said Hansen.

“Starting in 2023, the impact is huge. It won’t be as much of a positive recruiting pitch for BYU as it will be the lack of a negative recruiting pitch for opposing schools. If BYU is competing against a bunch of Pac-12 and Big 12 schools for a given player, they can’t say, ‘We’re P5 so come here.’ Everyone else that they are recruiting against could make that same pitch.”

Hansen, who keeps up on the pulse of recruits, approaches, pitches and reports from prospects after visits and offers says the P5 card has definitely been used against BYU recruiters.

“They have battled schools saying, ‘Oh, you like BYU? Well, they’re not playing big-time football as an independent. If you want big-time football, you can’t do it at BYU.’ That negative pitch is gone and that’s what will make the biggest difference for BYU. When it comes to recruiting players like Spencer Fano, Walker Lyons and Javance Tupouata-Johnson in the 2023 class, BYU offers everything that the competition offers. That is a huge difference.”

Contacted in Rigby on Monday, Togiai had an interesting take on this issue of Big 12 membership and whether the Utah game in Provo had helped direct his choice of becoming a Cougar.

“The Big 12 had no influence on my decision. I chose BYU because of the way I felt after visiting,” said the lineman.

One of the nation’s top tight end prospects, four-star Walker Lyons (Folsom, California) told Casey Lundquist of Cougs Daily, his views on BYU changed upon his visit to Provo, witnessing a win over Utah and the Big 12 invite.

“My view on BYU after the weekend (win over Utah) definitely changed. From winning a big game against a great Pac-12 team and then moving to the Big 12, it was just a great weekend for BYU football, and I was happy to be there to witness how awesome it really is.”

On Monday, Sitake said his priority is clear. “I want young men who want to be here, who fit into our program and culture.”

That, he has found with his current team, is a formula for success.