Not quite three weeks since the disappointing loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl dampened BYU’s otherwise impressive 2021 football season, a little bit of uncertainty still surrounds the makeup of the 2022 Cougars team.
Of course, there is always some attrition. Some players decide to hang it up, for a variety of reasons. A few transfers will leave and enter the program, just like any other year.
At least one key player with eligibility remaining, standout receiver Gunner Romney, had yet to make his future intentions known when the first day of winter semester arrived Monday (Jan. 3) and this article was penned.
What is certain, however, is that BYU coach Kalani Sitake and his staff are not rebuilding nearly as much as they were at this time last year. They would eventually lose nearly a dozen major 2020 contributors to the NFL or the working world, including quarterback Zach Wilson, nose guard Khyiris Tonga (boy, was he missed this past season in the losses to Baylor and UAB), left tackle Brady Christensen, guard Tristen Hoge, safety Zayne Anderson, linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, cornerback Chris Wilcox, tight end Matt Bushman and receiver Dax Milne.
The biggest losses this year, obviously, are superstar running back Tyler Allgeier, who announced last week he is entering the 2022 NFL draft, and four-year contributors James Empey (OL), Neil Pau’u (WR) and Uriah Leiataua (DL). Backup quarterback Baylor Romney, who went 4-1 as a starter, is also moving on and will be missed.
None of those departures are major surprises, except, perhaps, Baylor Romney’s decision. Some people have forgotten that Allgeier, Empey and Pau’u were among the players honored on Senior Day and took part in the senior walk after the game.
Defensive lineman Earl Tuioti-Mariner, offensive lineman Joe Tukuafu and running back Lopini Katoa were also honored before the Nov. 6 game against Idaho State and walked after the contest, but all three have said recently they plan to return in 2022.
Gunner Romney also walked that day, for what that is worth. Sources have told the Deseret News that Romney is leaning toward staying, but hasn’t entirely made up his mind.
Not much coaching turnover
It is looking more and more like the BYU coaching staff will remain intact in 2022. Sitake signed a new contract last month that takes him through 2027 and ensures his assistants will be paid more this year in an effort to keep them from bolting for higher-paying jobs. A lot of fans would like to see former BYU LB Kelly Poppinga, who was on former BYU and Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall’s staff before Mendenhall resigned, return to Provo in some capacity. But that might not be doable with no openings apparent in the near future.
“I just love being around these guys. These guys mean a lot to me,” Sitake said in the post-bowl news conference. “I love being around our players and coaches a lot. And right now they’re hurting. But that’s OK. My job is to rally them back, and wish the guys that are moving on to the NFL good luck.”
Sitake lost offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Eric Mateos to recent Sugar Bowl champion Baylor last January. Aaron Roderick was promoted to OC, Fesi Sitake to passing game coordinator, and Sitake brought in offensive line coach Darrell Funk and linebackers coach Kevin Clune to fill the vacancies.
Sitake was asked if the bowl loss will disrupt the momentum garnered during the regular season when the Cougars went 5-0 against the Pac-12 and 6-1 against Power Five teams two seasons before they will enter the Big 12, and the goodwill created within the fan base.
“Only if we choose to,” he said. “The momentum is (determined) by us. We have to keep the momentum rolling. That’s my choice as the head coach, and that’s what the rest of the guys have to decide.”
Sitake acknowledged the loss “is a step backwards,” but stressed the program would learn from the setback and grow from it.
“Regarding momentum, that all depends on how we approach it,” Sitake said. “We have a lot of guys coming back, a lot of really good talent, new talent coming to our program, too. So today just didn’t work out well for us. It’s OK, we lost the game, but it’d be worse if we lost the game and we didn’t learn from it. … So I don’t see it changing or see the momentum shifting much.”
Schedule gets stronger
Another near-certainty is that the Cougars’ schedule this coming season will be more difficult than last year’s, even if it includes only five Power Five opponents, rather than seven as in 2021 when BYU finished with a 10-3 record.
As of Monday, with only the Texas Bowl (Kansas State vs. LSU) and the CFP National Championship Game (Georgia vs. Alabama) yet to be played, BYU’s 2021 schedule ranked as only the 63rd most-difficult in the country, according to the Sagarin Ratings.
Teams that were supposed to be good — looking at you, Arizona State, Virginia, Washington State, USC and Boise State — didn’t turn out to be all that good, while Baylor and instate foes Utah and Utah State were better than almost anybody expected, especially the Aggies. The end result was that the schedule was far more manageable than expected.
Adding to the difficulty of the 2022 schedule is the fact that BYU will play 10 straight weeks without a bye, just at it did in 2021. Saturday, East Carolina announced it will play at BYU on Oct. 29 instead of Nov. 12, which now becomes the Cougars’ bye week, barring a scheduling revision.
Defense needs some help
Playing 10 consecutive weeks against mostly P5 opponents in 2021 took its toll on the Cougars and tested their depth, and they clearly weren’t the same team that defeated Utah 26-17 on Sept. 11. They limped to the finish line, basically.
“We can always improve (in) a lot of different areas, and depth is one of them,” Sitake acknowledged. “The best way for us to improve is just to make sure that second- and third-stringers are ready to roll.”
Appearing on BYUtv’s “Cougar Sports Nation” program on Monday, ESPN analyst Trevor Matich, a former Cougar great, said that depth needs to get better, and soon.
“They are going to have to get their depth squared away again, right?” Matich said. “This year their depth was absolutely tested, and I think they got a feeling for what that is like, playing that kind of a schedule, that relentlessly, and what it means to have a next man up.
“You get yourself ready as if you are the starter because you could be at a critical moment at any point,” Matich continued. “A lot of BYU players, young players, learned that firsthand this year.”
A tougher test
BYU isn’t scheduled to play Utah, which finished 10-4 after losing 48-45 in heartbreaking fashion to No. 6 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, in 2022 or 2023, but will host Utah State on Sept. 30 in Provo in what should be an interesting and intense showdown at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
In all, BYU will play five Power Five schools — Baylor, at Oregon, vs. Notre Dame in Las Vegas, Arkansas and at Stanford.
All those schools except Stanford were in the CFP rankings top 25 when bowl season began.
The opener at rapidly improving South Florida, a Sept. 24 game against bowl winner Wyoming, an Oct. 22 contest at dangerous Liberty, and a Nov. 5 trip to Boise State should also test the Cougars in their quest to win 10 or more games for a third-straight year.
Help on the way
BYU hasn’t announced yet which returning missionaries will join the program in 2022, but some of the prospects are linebackers Michael Daley of the 2019 signing class and Logan Pili, Tate Romney and Bodie Schoonover of the 2020 signing class.
Five-star offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia, a transfer from Oregon, will bolster an offensive line that loses Empey but returns Tukuafu, All-America guard Clark Barrington and starting tackles Harris LaChance and Blake Freeland.
Losses to Baylor and UAB and the near-loss to USC showed the Cougars need help on the defensive line. The good news is that a couple of four-star recruits, Weber High’s Aisea Moa and Timpview’s Logan Fano, are already enrolled in classes and should participate in spring ball, which begins in early March.
Fano signed in 2021 and has been back from a church mission for a couple of months; Moa was part of the class that signed last month but does not have mission plans. Both will push for immediate playing time next fall.
Recovery from serious injury is always tricky and varies player to player, but the Cougars are hoping that linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili, defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea, cornerbacks Keenan Ellis and Micah Harper and tight end Isaac Rex return from injuries that cut short 2021 seasons, or ended them altogether, in Harper’s case.
Who’s back on offense?
Starting quarterback Jaren Hall missed the bowl game with an ankle injury, but there wasn’t much doubt that the fourth-year player from Mapleton would return in 2022, and he made that clear on New Year’s Eve when he said on Instagram that 2021 was good to him and it was “time to run it back” in 2022. Behind Hall are former four-star QB recruit Jacob Conover, Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan, Utah transfer Nick Billoups and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters.
✌ 2021 you’ve been good to us. Time to run it back https://t.co/4vlx0PPAmP— Jaren Hall (@jarenhall3) January 1, 2022
Replacing Allgeier, who set the school record for most rushing yards in a season last month, will not be easy. He had 1,606 yards and 23 touchdowns on 276 carries, leading the nation in TDs and placing third in total yards.
Katoa said before the bowl game that he is coming back, and will join Jackson McChesney, Hinckley Ropati and Miles Davis in giving the Cougars a decent crew of ballcarriers, but none who give them what Allgeier did.
Washington transfer Puka Nacua proved to be as good as advertised in 2021 and should be the go-to guy in 2022, especially if Gunner Romney doesn’t come back. Other returning receivers and tight ends to keep an eye on include Keanu Hill, Kody Epps, Chris Jackson, Dallin Holker and Masen Wake.
Who’s back on defense?
Defense became the Cougars’ biggest weakness as the season wore on, and they seemingly need some quick help to get back on track in 2022 — especially if the likes of Wilgar, Keenan Pili and Harper don’t return 100% from injuries.
Defensive end Tyler Batty is a rising star and has some NFL potential if he continues on the same trajectory. Tuioti-Mariner announced he’s coming back, which should help the defensive line’s depth. Linebackers Ben Bywater and Max Tooley are solid, but not flashy. Defensive backs Jakob Robinson, Kaleb Hayes, Malik Moore, D’Angelo Mandell and Chaz Ah You, if he can stay healthy, form a decent nucleus.
The Cougars could really use a Kyle Van Noy-like playmaker on defense, but those obviously don’t grow on trees.
Who’s back on special teams?
Kicker Jake Olrdoyd says he’s back for one more year, so that’s good news. Punter Ryan Rehkow also returns, so the Cougars are set there.
Hobbs Nyberg is a reliable punt returner. Caleb Christensen has shown some explosiveness as a kickoff returner, but needs to work on his decision-making.