BYU signing day(s) redux: Where should Big 12-bound Cougars be looking for football recruits?
BYU’s 2022 signing class is ranked 56th nationally by one recruiting service, considerably better than the previous few years
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake and defensive ends coach Preston Hadley made it abundantly clear Wednesday as they discussed the Cougars’ 2022 recruiting class that they aren’t interested in “chasing stars.”
With apologies to Coldplay, they probably don’t waste time chasing cars, either.
Recruiting rankings don’t matter to coaches nearly as much as they do to fans, they said.
“I think it is more about trusting your own evaluations,” Hadley said. “If stars mattered, all these marquee programs that have this rich tradition — I am not going to name any specific schools — you would see them in the playoffs every year, but you don’t. So if stars were all they are cracked up to be by a lot of people out there, you would see those teams (playing better).”
“Basically, we have to recruit the whole world and have a good foundation with the athlete who is (a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Our core recruiting base will be the members of the church — athletes who are members. We will look that way first. And then obviously, I think it is important for us to span the entire country.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
Speaking of which, BYU was ranked 56th in the 247Sports team rankings as of Thursday morning, considerably better than the Cougars have been the past few years. They were 77th in 2021, 81st in 2020 and 84th in 2019.
The Cougars were 53rd this year in the 247Sports overall rankings, which takes into account transfer portal additions. In BYU’s case, that means Oregon offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia, Cal running back Christopher Brooks and Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli, to date.
That the Cougars have won 21 of their last 25 games, including six victories over Power Five programs, is evidence that this “developmental model” of recruiting that Hadley and Sitake talked about Wednesday is working, to some degree. It is also a testament to the job that Sitake and company have done, getting a lot of Ws out of what experts have determined to be fairly mediocre talent, all things considered.
There are legitimate concerns, however, whether the model will be sustainable in the Big 12. The Cougars are always going to be strong on effort, commitment and the Xs and Os, but at some point don’t they need more four- and five-star Jimmies and Joes?
If there was a knock on BYU’s defense this year, aside from the lack of depth late in the season, it was that it lacked playmakers like a Kyle Van Noy, Sione Takitaki or Fred Warner who entered the program with loads of talent and then were pushed even higher by outstanding, development-based coaching.
As BYU football recruiting expert Jeff Hansen noted on Cougar Sports Insider, of the 14 defensive players BYU signed in December and on Wednesday, only three had offers from other schools. That’s 11 players the Cougars signed in which they were the player’s only offer.
“As a whole, it is hard not to wonder if the emphasis on development shrinks BYU’s margin for coaching error too thin,” Hansen wrote. “Only time will tell.”
Said Hadley, a former BYU defensive back who matriculated from Snow College: “We just take a lot of pride and trust in our own evaluation, and even if we are the only team to offer them, I mean, that’s OK. We know what we are looking for and we know how to develop. We have a proven track record. It has been tested now. And it is proven, just based off the result from last season.”
An example of that kind of player is Zoom Esplin, a 6-foot-8 two-way lineman from Encinitas, California, who is relatively new to football. He had zero stars.
“But he is big and he is athletic, and he is really heavy-handed and has a lot of grown man strength already,” said Hadley, who recruited him. “He is what we would classify as a developmental player, and we are just looking forward to getting him into the program, in the weight room, lifting, eating and developing. He’s got a really high ceiling and we are really excited about his potential and his future.”
BYU’s entrance into the Big 12 in 2023 is clearly helping recruiting, if one subscribes to the idea that the star-ranking system matters, as this author does. It should be mentioned, however, that a good chunk of the 25 recruits in this class committed before the Big 12 announcement was made on Sept. 10, 2021.
The real test will come next year, as BYU “broadens our recruiting net,” in Sitake’s words, and can tell recruits from the get-go that they will be playing in a Power Five league.
“Basically, we have to recruit the whole world and have a good foundation with the athlete who is (a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints),” Sitake said. “Our core recruiting base will be the members of the church — athletes who are members. We will look that way first. And then obviously, I think it is important for us to span the entire country.”
Actually, the Cougars didn’t really recruit the world, or even the entire country, to get their 2022 class. Of the 19 players BYU signed in December, 16 are from Utah, two are from Arizona and one is from Idaho. Two of the three transfer portal additions (Heimuli and Suamataia) are from Utah. Of the six players the Cougars signed Wednesday, five are from California and one is from Oklahoma.
Asked if there’s more pressure on BYU as a Big 12 member to get the very best Latter-day Saint recruits out there to compete favorably, athletic director Tom Holmoe nodded in the affirmative last week at his roundtable discussion.
“My answer: yes,” he said.
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told the Deseret News on Monday and Sitake confirmed Wednesday that BYU has a few more scholarship and/or transfer portal openings remaining. Interestingly, Sitake closed his remarks by saying the Cougars can’t afford to waste any time, or scholarships, on prospects who don’t pan out.
“There is a huge sense of urgency from the entire program, and myself, too,” Sitake said. “We want to be as good as we can, and that includes all 123 players. There is no more just having a guy out there to be a tackling dummy. That doesn’t work. Everybody on this roster needs to have a purpose and a role, and an opportunity to perform on the field in the near future.
“It is tough to narrow down, because we have so many players that want to be here, and so many that want to try out, and want to prove themselves,” he continued. “That is a good problem to have, though, that we have to choose from a bunch of players that want to be here, rather than just filling in bodies with people that just show up.”