BYU’s acceptance of an invitation to play in the 17th annual New Mexico Bowl against also 7-5 SMU was the biggest news of the weekend in Provo, obviously.
But it wasn’t the only news. Far from it, in this day and age of the transfer portal.
Backup quarterback Jacob Conover announced Friday afternoon that he is entering said portal, and has taken his last snap as a Cougar, presumably. The former four-star QB’s departure is extra troubling for BYU because starter Jaren Hall sustained a right ankle injury in the Nov. 26 win over Stanford and now has less than two weeks to heal before the Dec. 17 bowl in Albuquerque.
Head coach Kalani Sitake participated in a news conference Monday afternoon from Provo and addressed not only Conover’s decision, but also Hall’s status and the news from the previous weekend that seven-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki is stepping down.
“I think he is close (to deciding). I mean, he is taking all the information with the decision-making (process) and just hearing everything out. I think he and his wife are going to make the right decision for their family. I am confident he will do what is best for him and we will support him in whatever decision he makes.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake on Jaren Hall
First, the coach spoke at length about facing SMU, which has won four of its last five games and has one of the nation’s top offenses, powered by quarterback Tanner Mordecai and receiver Rashee Rice. The Mustangs average 38.4 points per game, 11th best in the country.
“I think the world of that (SMU) program and what (coach) Rhett Lashlee has done with that program,” Sitake said. “Watching them on film, they have tons of talent, and I like the way they compete. Really honored to be on the field with them, and have this experience at a bowl game with them as well.”
Sitake said he watched a little bit of SMU film a few days before the bowl announcement after hearing that the matchup with the Mustangs was a possibility, but nothing that really helped him get a head start on Lashlee’s team. He marveled that SMU scored 77 points on Houston.
“They look really difficult (to defend),” Sitake said. “They have the ability to just put on points and do it in a hurry. So you have to just watch the game with Houston just to see it. Basketball teams don’t even score that many points.”
In his news conference on Monday, Lashlee lavished praise on BYU as well, calling the Cougars “a really good national opponent.” Lashlee, who replaced now-TCU coach Sonny Dykes after the 2021 season, said BYU has played a “really good schedule” and “just the toughness stands out to me” after watching BYU on film.
Here’s more from Sitake on the pressing issues for the Cougars leading up to the bowl game:
What’s quarterback Jaren Hall’s status, and who are his backups now that Conover is out?
“Jaren is banged up,” Sitake said. “He’s not out of the game. Once we know more we will let you guys know.”
Sitake said Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan, walk-on Nick Billoups and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters have been getting reps in practices.
“Those guys will compete and what I saw so far, I have liked what all of them have done in practices that we have had thus far,” he said. “They have had some really good coaches. I like the way (offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick) coaches them, with (offensive analyst) Matt Mitchell. They will be ready if we need (them). Hopefully we can get Jaren through this and get him on the field.”
Sitake said a lot of players are healing up from the season and the physical final regular-season game, but nobody new has been ruled out of the bowl. Also, he noted that so far, no BYU player has informed him that they are planning to opt out of the bowl game.
Is Hall turning pro after the bowl game?
Sitake said Hall, a fifth-year junior, has not told him or any other coaches whether he is returning to BYU in 2023 or entering the NFL draft.
“I think he is close (to deciding),” Sitake said. “I mean, he is taking all the information with the decision-making (process) and just hearing everything out. I think he and his wife are going to make the right decision for their family. I am confident he will do what is best for him and we will support him in whatever decision he makes.”
Hall, 24, is married to former UVU soccer player Breanna McCarter and the couple has a 1-year-old daughter, Jayda.
What’s going on with the defensive coordinator search?
Sitake said he’s not afraid that not having a new defensive coordinator in place as the transfer portal window opened Monday and recruiting for the Dec. 21 early signing period ramped up last Friday will have an adverse effect on the program.
When asked who the interim DC is after Tuiaki resigned on Nov. 27, Sitake, who has in essence filled that role since the midseason loss to Arkansas, joked that “if it is a good play, then I called it. If it is a bad one, it is one of the other guys.”
He said he will have to lean on some analysts and graduate assistants more, especially because some coaches are out recruiting and will miss some practices.
Sitake said he hopes to have a new defensive coordinator in place “as soon as we can, but I also think it is not about the coach. It is about the place. It is not about me. It is about the program itself, and the school, and the people that are here.”
Will the new defensive coordinator get to bring in his own guys?
News broke Sunday that former BYU linebacker and assistant coach Kelly Poppinga, who coached at Boise State this season, is returning to BYU in some capacity. Before joining Boise State’s staff, Poppinga, 40, was a co-defensive coordinator on Bronco Mendenhall’s staff at Virginia, having followed Mendenhall east in 2016.
Sitake didn’t address the Poppinga news, but did say it is “pretty common” for defensive coordinators to be given the power to build their own defensive staff.
“We will work together on that,” Sitake said. “The key is getting (the new DC) in place and then evaluating everybody that is available.”
More transfer portal news
Monday afternoon, 247sports.com reported that BYU linebacker Tate Romney, younger brother of outgoing senior receiver Gunner Romney, has entered the transfer portal. Tate Romney is the fifth known member of the 2022 team to enter the portal, joining tight end Dallin Holker, offensive lineman Campbell Barrington, receiver Terence Fall and Conover.
Before news of Romney’s move was made public, Sitake said that none of the transfers took him by surprise.
“I had really good conversations with Conover especially, so that, it was good moments,” Sitake said. “I am happy and I hope those guys get what they are looking for. I want to be one that is always going to mentor the young men and sometimes leaving is the best option.”
17th annual New Mexico Bowl
BYU (7-5) vs. SMU (7-5)
Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m. MST
University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM