Signing day: BYU ignores star rankings, trusts its own evaluations
Cougars sign six new recruits on Wednesday, but only one — Snow College OL Lisala Tai — could be considered a highly recruited prospect
Say this much for BYU head coach Kalani Sitake and his assistant coaches: They’ve got a plan for improving their football team as they transition into the Big 12 in 2023, and they are sticking to it.
“I know everybody wants to make a big deal about stars and everything, but just look at the success we have had over these last couple of years. ... A lot of players made a lot of plays for us and really impact the games for us who didn’t have the stars. But they did have the measurables — the length, the speed, the athleticism, the things that we look for.” — BYU defensive ends coach Preston Hadley
That plan is to mostly ignore star rankings and not chase them as much as many other programs in the country do, and continue to focus on their own evaluations, developmental players and some diamond-in-the-rough recruits that could be viewed as projects, has been criticized in this space and elsewhere.
But Sitake and the Cougars are apparently bent on following it through.
BYU signed six new prospects Wednesday as national signing day opened a new signing period, and only one of them — Snow College offensive lineman Lisala Tai, a former BYU signee in 2016 — could be consider a highly recruited prospect.
BYU apparently beat out Fresno State, Jackson State, Central Florida, West Virginia, Maryland, Boise State and others for the 6-foot-7, 336-pound Tai’s services. He’s rated as a consensus three-star prospect by 247 Sports.
Most of the other five signees, with the possible exception of Tulsa, Oklahoma, defensive back Korbyn Green, another three-star recruit, were not highly recruited.
Green, 6-0, 175, who was discovered by BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford through connections and ties he has in the Sooner State, came into BYU’s focus in January and reportedly runs a 10.7-second 100 meters and a 4.41 40-yard dash.
BYU’s signing day additions (Feb. 2, 2022)
Lisala Tai OL 6-7, 336, Inglewood, California (Hawthorne High/Snow College)
Zion Allen DB 6-1, 150, Stockton, California (Manteca High)
Korbyn Green DB 6-0 175, Tulsa, Oklahoma (Owasso High)
Nathaniel Gillis DB 6-2, 174, San Diego, California (Steele Canyon High)
Zoom Esplin DL 6-8, 250, Encinitas, California (La Costa Canyon High)
Evan Johnson DB 6-1, 175, Monterey, California (Stevenson High)
Green, from Owasso High, was one of four defensive back signings Wednesday. Californians Zion Allen (Manteca), Nathaniel Gillis (San Diego) and Evan Johnson (Monterery) also signed to play in the secondary.
Asked which of the four defensive backs can contribute right away, Gilford said, succinctly: “All of them.”
The other defensive signee, 6-8 edge rusher Zoom Esplin, a 250-pounder from Encinitas, California (La Costa Canyon High), will have to be developed as he’s only played football for three years, defensive ends coach Preston Hadley acknowledged.
Esplin is the only player who signed Wednesday who has church mission plans.
“Just a year ago we had five guys drafted,” Hadley said in a signing day news conference conducted via Zoom. “I know everybody wants to make a big deal about stars and everything. But just look at the success we have had over these last couple of years. We have had a lot of players make a lot of plays for us and really impact the games for us who didn’t have the stars. But they did have the measurables — the length, the speed, the athleticism, the things that we look for.”
Wednesday’s six signees join the 19 signees from December’s early signing period to push BYU into No. 57 in the 247 Sports national team recruiting rankings as of Wednesday afternoon. Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia of the SEC are ranked 1-2-3. Departing Big 12 members Texas (No. 5) and Oklahoma (No. 9) are also in the top 10.
Although the Cougars’ 2022 signing class now stands at 25 players, which is the maximum number of scholarships allowed by the NCAA, they still “have a few spots left,” Sitake said, because the majority of the December signees will go on missions before enrolling.
“So obviously we are going to use them all,” Sitake said. “Maybe 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.”
Several other recruits announced Wednesday will be joining the program as preferred walk-ons, recruits such as Charles “Chika” Ebunoha, an athlete from Tucson, Arizona (Marana High); Lone Peak offensive lineman Trevor Pay; Virginia defensive end Carson Tujague (son of former BYU OL coach Garett Tujague); Springville defenders Porter Small and Cole Clement; and receiver Dominique Henry of Nease High in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
“Really excited to have them and their families part of our family here at BYU and am just honored that their families would trust me as their head coach and the rest of our coaches to see them through their transition of being a young man into an adult,” Sitake said.
Like finding under-recruited developmental players, attracting preferred walk-ons is another big part of BYU’s recruiting strategy, Sitake acknowledged. Pay, Tujague and Henry are among the PWOs who had scholarship offers elsewhere but chose to walk on at BYU.
“We have to be creative with missions and all those things, with preferred walk-on spots, with how we organize all that,” Sitake said.
In January, BYU added two mid-year graduate transfers who should be able to contribute right away while the developmental guys get up to speed: Cal tailback Christopher Brooks and Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli.
Also, four previously signed recruits who are back from church missions have enrolled and will participate in spring camp, which begins Feb. 28. They are Timpview defensive end Logan Fano; Pine View defensive tackle Brooks Maile; South Summit defensive tackle Bruce Mitchell; and Bingham defensive back Isaiah Glasker.
Asked if the “developmental model” is sustainable and can be effective when BYU gets into the Big 12, Sitake said it is, with some tweaking and work done in the transfer portal and with walk-ons to build depth.
“Yeah, I think the model is that you have 85 scholarship athletes, and then you have another 38 to 40 that you can add to the roster,” he said, seconding Hadley’s notion that a key is trusting in their own evaluations and not relying on recruiting services to determine which players can thrive at BYU.
“When you have a history of great walk-ons, and them having an opportunity to play, and moving on to the next level, and be a known name (you use that),” he said, noting that Washington receiver Dax Milne was a walk-on out of Bingham High and probable NFL draft pick Tyler Allgeier was a walk-on out of Fontana, California.
“Players are now looking at their options — they say, ‘OK, if I go to BYU as a walk-on, there is a high chance I can improve like I think I can, and I am confident in my abilities, that if I do well in school and do well on the field and get on the depth chart, I will possibly get a scholarship,’” he said.
In the past, BYU has announced which players currently serving missions who are returning this spring or summer will join the team in the fall. It didn’t do that Wednesday, perhaps because of this reason Sitake laid out when asked for some names of post-spring additions:
“There are going to be a number of missionaries that are going to come home, March until July, and even August, and some of them won’t be ready to go until January,” he said.
Those RMs will “grayshirt” and work out in a program designed to get them ready to join the team in January 2023, as some of the aforementioned have done this year.
“In our research, and (with) the experience we have had, the numbers show that when the missionaries come home in the summer, they all get hurt in the fall,” Sitake said. “And that is tough to have a young man get hurt, and then having to spend the offseason rehabbing instead of conditioning and getting stronger. And that puts them behind.”
Sitake said the “safest” thing to do is have them grayshirt.
“Because of our missionary program, and the extra year (granted to student-athletes due to COVID), we probably have to do a lot more balancing than others,” he said.