BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick dishes on this year’s prospects and last year’s successes and failures
Cougars return 80% of their offensive experience in 2022, should be able to maintain their status as one of the best offenses in the country, despite another rugged schedule
For the first time in recent memory, there is no starting quarterback battle to speak of in Provo this year when spring practices for the BYU football team begin in less than two weeks.
Fifth-year junior Jaren Hall is the man, and will be the man when spring camp opens Feb. 28.
The returned missionary and Maple Mountain High product won the QB derby last year over Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover, and played so well in 10 games — he missed three games due to injury — that there’s no question he is QB1 for the 2022 season if he remains healthy.
“I think we have a chance to be really good again. I am really excited about Jaren and all the other guys coming back with experience, like (receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua) and the running backs and tight ends and linemen. I can’t wait.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
“It is fun to have a year where you know who your starting quarterback is, and now the battle gets to be for who is No. 2 and who is No. 3,” BYU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said late last month in a wide-ranging interview with the Deseret News.
Actually, there aren’t a lot of burning questions surrounding the BYU offense this season, other than which players will emerge to replace the three top departures from the 10-3 2021 campaign: running back Tyler Allgeier, receiver Neil Pau’u and offensive lineman James Empey.
“I think we have a chance to be really good again,” Roderick said. “I am really excited about Jaren and all the other guys coming back with experience, like (receivers Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua) and the running backs and tight ends and linemen. I can’t wait.”
Bill Connelly, an ESPN college football analyst, agrees with Roderick’s assessment, saying in his first release of his returning production rankings that the Cougars return 80% of their offensive experience from 2021, which ranks BYU 28th in the country in that category.
Notably, BYU’s defense returns 97% of its production, first in the country by quite a bit. Combined, BYU has more production returning than any team outside of Bowling Green.
“We feel good about the talent and depth we have coming back,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said during signing day two weeks ago. “You know, but there is a huge sense of urgency from the entire program, and myself, too. We want to be the best as we can be.”
The Cougars have added fullback Houston Heimuli (Stanford) and tailback Christopher Brooks (Cal) from the transfer portal, and more additions could be coming, Sitake said on Feb. 2.
“We have a few spots left, so obviously we are going to use them all,” Sitake said. “Yeah, maybe even today or in the next couple of weeks we will have some people added to the team and improve our team depth.
“We will see what happens after spring ball and after spring semester, where guys stand in the program, and if there are some others looking for options to play earlier. We have a bunch of returning missionaries coming home. There are a lot of opportunities for our depth to get better.”
Thoughts on the 2021 BYU offense
By any measure, last year’s BYU offense was outstanding, as Roderick’s maiden voyage as the Cougars’ unquestioned play-caller proved to be efficient and effective, even as injuries to Hall, Pau’u, tight end Isaac Rex, Empey and other offensive linemen stacked up.
As Connelly wrote, “the Cougars ranked 117th in returning production last season but still foraged out a 10-3 record. Now they’ve got all the experience they didn’t have a year ago.”
Reflecting on the year, Roderick said coaches knew they lost a lot of offensive production from the 2020 season — most notably quarterback Zach Wilson and receiver Dax Milne — and would need to be extremely efficient given their Power Five-laden schedule.
“We had a lot of confidence that those guys were going to step up and play well, but you never know until you see it,” he said. “I thought we had a number of good performances from guys that weren’t even on the team the year before, or guys who hadn’t played a lot, like Jaren.”
“Players stepping up was the first thing, and then overall on the season I thought we were very efficient and we were one of the better teams in the country at points per possession. When we got the ball, we usually did good things with it.” — Aaron Roderick
BYU finished 29th in scoring offense (33.1 points per game) and 17th in total offense (452.2 yards per game), but a couple of the stats Roderick was most pleased with were third-down conversion percentage (15th), team passing efficiency (12th) and red-zone offense (25th).
They converted on third down 45.9% of the time, had a team passing efficiency of 158.6 (Baylor Romney contributed greatly to this number) and scored on 89.1% of their red-zone chances — 41 touchdowns and eight field goals.
“Players stepping up was the first thing, and then overall on the season I thought we were very efficient and we were one of the better teams in the country at points per possession,” Roderick said. “When we got the ball, we usually did good things with it.”
Keeping the band together
After BYU’s 11-1 season in 2020, OC Jeff Grimes and OL coach Eric Mateos bolted for Baylor for bigger paychecks and the opportunity to coach at a Power Five school. Roderick and receivers coach Fesi Sitake had opportunities to pursue other jobs this offseason, but chose to remain in Provo, as BYU officials gave Kalani Sitake a new “unprecedented” contract and publicly promised that assistants would also be taken care of financially and with additional support staff hirings.
“It is happening,” Roderick said. “I feel like BYU is really committed to stepping up and competing in the Big 12. And that seems to be happening in all areas of this program, yeah.”
As of Valentine’s Day, it appears the staff will remain intact.
“Yeah, I think this year and last year there were coaches on this staff that had opportunities to go elsewhere, but we all believe in what we are doing here,” Roderick said. “At least I can speak for myself, I really like working for Kalani. I love the way he treats me and he treats our staff, and the way he treats our players.”
Roderick commutes daily from his home in Salt Lake City near the University of Utah, his former employer. He does that, in part, so the lives of his children are disrupted as little as possible.
“And I love coaching these players,” he said. “So I have wanted to be here, and now as I see the university stepping up and making a larger commitment to football and being ready to hit the ground running in the Big 12, for me it was an easy choice to want to stay.”
Independence Bowl ills
A lot of BYU fans, and some media members, were surprised when the aforementioned Hall did not play in the Independence Bowl, a frustrating 31-28 loss to UAB for the Cougars. Romney played reasonably well, completing 15 of 23 passes for 195 yards, with no interceptions. And Allgeier ran for 192 yards.
But the offense lacked Hall’s dual-threat abilities. Why didn’t he play, and did Roderick plan for it?
Hall didn’t practice at all during initial bowl prep, and got in just a little work in the days before the bowl game after suffering a lower leg injury in the win over USC on Nov. 27.
“The only thing that caught me by surprise was just the injury lingered a little longer than we thought it would,” Roderick said. “That was the only thing that caught me off guard, was just how long it took.”
BYU’s offense in selected categories, 2021 season
Scoring offense: 29th (33.1 points per game)
Total offense: 17th (452.2 yards per game)
Rushing offense: 37th (188.2 ypg.)
Passing offense: 31st (264.1 ypg.)
Yards per passing attempt: 14th (8.83)
Yards per completion: 25th (13.57)
Third-down conversion percentage: 15th (45.9%)
Fourth-down conversion percentage: 34th (61.5%) — 16 of 26 attempts
Red zone offense: 25th (89.1%)
Team passing efficiency: 12th (158.66)
Romney took all the starter’s reps and was ready to play. Monday, Romney announced on social media that he took a job with Adobe and is moving on from his football career, having been in the transfer portal since December.
“Baylor is a good player,” Roderick said. “I knew there was a good chance Baylor was going to start that game, and then as we got closer to it we were open to Jaren sort of making a last-minute start. But he didn’t feel like he was quite ready, and our medical people didn’t feel like he was quite ready, so we just decided it was best for his future just to be smart and hold him out.”
Obviously, BYU lost because UAB rushed for 223 yards and controlled the clock for more than 35 minutes, essentially keeping BYU’s high-powered offense off the field. If there was something to nitpick the offense about, it was going 4 of 12 on third-down attempts and 2 of 5 on fourth-down tries.
What will the offense look like in 2022?
Roderick said he doesn’t have any major schematic changes planned for BYU’s offense in 2022, just some minor tweaking here and there to fit the personnel. Obviously, the Cougars will have a hard time replacing the record-breaking Allgeier’s production: 1,601 yards on 276 attempts.
“We have good depth everywhere,” he said. “We have a good, young running backs group, and we added Chris Brooks there.”
Lopini Katoa, Jackson McChesney, Hinckley Ropati and Miles Davis are among the RBs looking for carries.
Who will emerge as Hall’s primary backup at quarterback?
Roderick said Conover and Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan “know the offense well and are going to get good reps this spring.” He said Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters is a different type of player than the other two, “but he has been here long enough that our trust in him is growing and so we could definitely win games with him. The offense would look a little bit different, but he’s a good player.”
Identifying a primary backup will be one of the major focuses of spring ball for the offense, Roderick said.
“We know enough about Jaren now — we need to develop who the No. 2 guy is, who the No. 3 guy is, and go from there,” he said. “I think all those guys have a chance. And so I am excited to see how that battle plays out.
At receiver, Roderick said Pau’u was an underrated all-around player who will be sorely missed. After recording career highs in 2021 for catches (46) and touchdowns (six), Pau’u announced on Dec. 22 that he would forego his final year of eligibility (an extra year due to COVID-19) and enter the NFL draft.
“We know enough about Jaren now — we need to develop who the No. 2 guy is, who the No. 3 guy is, and go from there. I think all those guys have a chance. And so I am excited to see how that battle plays out.” — Aaron Roderick
“He is a big loss,” Roderick said. “It might not get as much attention as it should. Neil did so many things for us that probably went unnoticed. … He was just a really unique player, and so finding someone to play that type of role is not easy.”
Roderick said coaches are “super excited” to have Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney back, and noted that Keanu Hill is “on track” to have a breakout year. Brayden Cosper and Kody Epps “have shown they can play” if they can stay healthy.
Roderick’s primary concern in 2022
Roderick said the injury that tight end Isaac Rex suffered against USC that ended his second season prematurely was “pretty rough” and will obviously keep Rex out of spring camp, perhaps even longer.
“My concern is more for him as a person than a player,” Roderick said. “I think our team is going to be fine. We have good depth on this team. So we will have guys at the tight end position, where we always have good players.”
Lehi product Dallin Holker leads a group that includes Carter Wheat and Ben Tuipulotu.
“Isaac is going to go through some tough times battling back from that (ankle) injury,” Roderick said. “All the reports we get, though, are that he is healing well and it is going as good as you can expect. … But I think we have to give him some time and some room to make sure he is all the way ready. So there is concern just for him as an individual.”
Former BYU TE Bentley Hanshaw announced in January he is transferring to Liberty.
Offensive line has plenty of experience
Three-star Snow College offensive lineman Lisala Tai signed with BYU on signing day the first Wednesday of February, adding to an already deep and experienced offensive line that includes returning starters or part-time starters Clark Barrington, Campbell Barrington, Blake Freeland, Harris LaChance, Joe Tukuafu and Connor Pay.
“We are really excited moving into the future,” offensive line coach Darrell Funk said. “We got a lot of guys that have played a lot of football. … We have multiple guys who have started. We have a handful of kids that only have a year left, and then some maybe one or two years left and that is where I think Lisala really adds in.”
Tai will have four years to play three. Five-star Oregon transfer Kingsley Suamataia also joins the room.
“It should be kinda obvious with the guys we have added since the season ended, with Kingsley and some other kids that you will be hearing about, that we have good depth,” Funk said. “Really excited about moving into the spring ball phase of the year.”
Funk said BYU has already started recruiting for the trenches with an eye on joining the Big 12 in 2023, a notion that Roderick seconded and said extends to the entire offense, if not the entire program.
Big 12 is around the corner
Having been at Utah when the Utes made the transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, Roderick has a good idea what it will take to be ready for the Big 12. He says BYU is on the right track, but not there yet.
“Our game against Baylor last year, that was an eye-opener,” he said. “They are a physical team, and they pushed us around that day on both sides of the ball. That is a taste of the Big 12, a taste of what is ahead. We have to get better to be ready for an eight- or nine-game stretch of that.”
The Cougars matched up well with other Power Five teams, such as Virginia, Utah, Arizona State and Washington State, but know they need to keep improving, developing and recruiting players for the Big 12.
“I know on offense we are trying to set really high standards for the measurable things like height and weight,” he said. “And we want to stay big. We have a big receiving corps. We have big tight ends. We have big offensive linemen. We need to keep that up if we want to play with those big teams in that conference.”
Roderick said BYU’s independent schedule has prepared it for a Power Five schedule fairly well, a luxury Utah didn’t quite have in jumping from a Group of Five conference.
“We are playing enough Power Five teams each year that I don’t think it will be such a shock to our system when we get there,” he said.