While introducing the first 15 signees to his 2023 football recruiting class Wednesday as the three-day early signing period began, BYU coach Kalani Sitake mentioned several times that more signings will follow between now and the traditional signing day the first Wednesday of February.

“If you are just all-portal, all the time, there is a good chance your team is going to be pretty up and down from year to year. So what we are trying to do is have a nice balance where we are plugging a few gaps with portal guys, but the majority of our recruiting class is still going to be high school players.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick

“We will still add to this group,” Sitake said, almost apologetically.

That should give BYU fans a glimmer of hope that the next wave of signees includes some difference-makers and players with Power Five-type ability, because this one is rather unimpressive for a program that athletic director Tom Holmoe has acknowledged needs to “level up” to be competitive in the Big 12 right off the bat.

As of Wednesday afternoon, BYU’s signing class was ranked No. 71 in the country by 247sports.com, the industry leader in these types of deals.

That seems, well, not that great, especially considering what’s going on 50 miles to the north. Rose Bowl-bound Utah — which obviously has had a 12-year head start on BYU when it comes to recruiting to a Power Five program — is in the top 25.

But let’s compare apples to apples. Among the other programs that are joining the Big 12 in 2023, Central Florida was at 52, Houston was at 63 and Cincinnati was at 80. So maybe it’s not time to panic.

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Maybe that long-awaited bump in recruiting for the Big 12’s new members will take some time.

And maybe the team recruiting rankings are not the be-all, end-all way of projecting future success. But they are generally accurate, and a fairly good measuring stick

“When we are looking at recruiting, I am not looking at rankings and things like that,” Sitake told reporters via Zoom on Wednesday, flanked by offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and new defensive coordinator Jay Hill. “I know (reporters) do all that. We are looking at playing ability, first, and also the versatility that they may have. You look at this group of young men here (who signed Wednesday), they can play a lot of different positions. A lot of them are hybrids in some ways. It is just (about) seeing what we need to fit the schemes.”

History has shown that Sitake and his staff have done a lot with a little the past seven seasons — he’s 56-34 with four bowl wins, after all — and probably overachieved if recruiting ratings are the primary metric considered. The Cougars routinely punch above their weight class. Here’s their 247sports.com team ranking since 2017 — Sitake’s first full recruiting class: 66, 78, 81, 80, 77, 56 and 71. 

That latter number could change, but not by much.

Perhaps a better gauge is the average recruit ranking, and BYU’s is 85.25, which Jeff Hansen of Cougarsportsinsider.com points out is the highest average recruit ranking at BYU since such gauges became a thing. So that’s a positive for Sitake and company.

National recruiting expert Brandon Huffman told the Deseret News Tuesday that BYU’s 2023 class emphasizes quality over quantity. What Wednesday also showed is that Sitake and company are saving plenty of spots to mine the transfer portal, a process that has already begun, although Roderick said Wednesday that BYU is “never going to stop recruiting high school players that we project are going to be good players in this program.”

Roderick said the key is striking the right balance.

“If you are just all-portal, all the time, there is a good chance your team is going to be pretty up and down from year to year,” Roderick said. “So what we are trying to do is have a nice balance where we are plugging a few gaps with portal guys, but the majority of our recruiting class is still going to be high school players.”

Roderick said the fact that many go on two-year missions before enrolling changes the dynamic.

“We have a long history here of developing players over time and so I think we are trying to find that balance,” he said.

One of BYU’s top players from 2022 that BYU developed into a standout tackler, linebacker Keenan Pili, signed with Tennessee on Wednesday.

Obviously, there is an immediate need at running back, with Lopini Katoa and Cal transfer Chris Brooks moving on. Coaches think they have plugged that hole with Aidan Robbins, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound bruiser from Louisville, Kentucky, who started his career at Louisville and played last year at UNLV, where he led the Rebels in rushing with 209 carries for 1,011 yards and nine TDs.

Robbins, who was recruited heavily by BYU out of high school, has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

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“We kind of picked up (recruiting) him right where we left off with him in high school. It felt like we already knew him really well, he knew us really well. So it was a pretty easy relationship,” Roderick said. 

The Cougars also announced Wednesday the signing of Boise State transfer Isaiah Bagnah, a 6-4, 225-pound edge rusher from Canada who played for new BYU special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga last season.

“He has played a lot of Division I reps at a high level,” said Hill. “He brings us a twitchy pass rusher off the edge, and he is multiple. He can play outside backer, he can play defensive end. He is physical, he is athletic.

“I think he fits what we need on the edge and he reminds me a lot of the guys that BYU has had here in the past, the (Kyle) Van Noys, the (Sione) Takitakis, the Fred Warners. He is a similar body type as those guys.”

Another of those rangy types the Cougars signed Wednesday who should be able to help them find the pass rush they will desperately need in the Big 12 is 6-3 linebacker Siale Esera out of nearby Timpview High. Esera is a four-star recruit by Rivals.com and a three-star by 247sports.com, whose recruitment heated up the last month.

The Cougars held on to Esera despite a late push from UCLA and other Pac-12 schools, with Hill reportedly closing the deal days after he was hired away from Weber State. Esera plans to enroll next summer and compete for playing time right away.

“We feel like we have a good eye for the recruits that we want, (recruits) who fit the systems that we want to implement. And the recruits that are here will do that,” Hill said. “I think with adding (new defensive line coach Sione Po’uha) and the other defensive guys to the mix that we are comfortable with, recruiting is going to get better and better and better. The key, in my opinion, is having an eye for what we want to bring in and how they fit the schemes and systems that we are going to implement.”

That’s especially true if the Cougars can’t consistently attract the kind of four- and five-star talent that Utah and the Big 12 heavyweights are landing. Big 12 schools that are soon leaving for the SEC, Texas (No. 3) and Oklahoma (No. 8), have landed the top classes to date among the league’s current schools. TCU is at No. 18, Texas Tech at No. 23.

Can BYU win in that league with classes ranked in the 60s, 70s and 80s? We will soon find out.

BYU’s highest-rated signee Wednesday was tight end Jackson Bowers of Mesa, Arizona (Mountain View High), a four-star recruit (247sports.com) who is rated at the No. 22 tight end prospect in the country. He picked BYU over offers from Alabama, Utah, Washington, Baylor, USC and others.

“Jackson Bowers, I will just say, he looks like a Power Five tight end right now,” Roderick said. “He is a big, strong, athletic guy. He is all of 6-5, 250 pounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is able to play as a freshman. He is a really good player.”

Bowers does not have mission plans and is expected to join the program next summer.

BYU signed one junior college transfer Wednesday, defensive back Jayden Dunlap. The Cerritos College product has two years of eligibility remaining.

“He has a knack for the football,” said cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford on BYUtv. “He’s one of the most underrated corners in California.”

As Sitake noted, BYU is expecting a few more National Letters of Intent to trickle in the next few days; late Wednesday afternoon the school announced that mammoth Colorado offensive lineman Ethan Thomason (6-8, 315) had committed to the Cougars.

Thomason, who has said he will serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before enrolling, is one of those highly touted Latter-day Saint prospects that church-sponsored BYU would like to get more of in the future, Sitake acknowledged.

“I think we have a really good staff that can recruit the best of them,” Sitake said, when asked what it will take to wrest some of the top Latter-day Saint players away from the likes of Utah and other top Pac-12 schools. “If that means we can get a few more than we have, then great. I think we’ve got a really good thing to sell right now.

“We are in the Big 12. There are a lot of great things happening in this program and in the athletic department and in the university overall. So there is a lot of great momentum swinging our way and I anticipate that we will be able to get that done in recruiting as well.”


BYU’s yearly 247 Sports.com team recruiting ranking under Kalani Sitake

2016 — 49

2017 — 66

2018 — 78

2019 — 81

2020 — 80

2021 — 77

2022 — 56

2023 — 71*

* — As of 4 p.m. MST Wednesday — subject to change slightly.