A lot of college football teams begin spring practices later this week, or even next week.

The BYU Cougars, meanwhile, just hit the halfway mark of spring camp, having held the seventh of 15 scheduled practices — the maximum allowed by the NCAA — on Monday. BYU generally starts earlier than almost everyone else in order to get all 15 practices in before its sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, holds its semiannual general conference in early April.

So how are the Cougars progressing, and what do they hope to accomplish in the second half of camp?

Head coach Kalani Sitake, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake and several players recently addressed those questions, and more. They say that because of the continuity of the coaching staff — which remained intact after the Cougars went 10-3 last year and defeated six Power Five programs — and the large number of experienced players returning that they are leaps and bounds ahead of where they have been in the past at this juncture of March.

“We did not play as well as we could have in that last game of the year. We did not go out the way we wanted to go out. And that is very motivating. Even in some of the wins, we didn’t play the way we knew we could play.” — BYU offensive lineman Connor Pay on the 2021 season

“Really, really happy with what I have seen so far in the first seven practices of spring,” Kalani Sitake said.

The Cougars are practicing on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and using Wednesdays and Fridays to lift weights and hold film sessions. Perhaps the best news is that they have not had any serious injuries, despite a lot of hitting and contact drills taking place so coaches can identify which players they can count on this fall.

“Practices have been full of good competition,” Sitake said. “We are just looking forward to getting these guys better, getting them ready for the offseason, and then going into fall ready to go.”

Part of the process in spring, Sitake said, is to teach players what they should do in April, May, June and July when coaches aren’t allowed to hold official practices. Plenty can be accomplished in nonmandatory player-run practices, coaches say.

Sitake said most of the defense has been installed, and coaches on that side of the ball “are really working on getting things kinda polished out as far as the technique and fundamentals of the game.”

On offense, the last parts were installed Monday, Fesi Sitake said.

“That allows us to really focus this last half of camp on guys who can help us and who we can rely on this fall,” Fesi Sitake said. “We can focus on which players run which plays the best.”

The No. 1 goal, coaches have said, is to emerge from camp as healthy as possible. 

A couple of players have decided to medically retire due to past injuries — most notably cornerbacks Keenan Ellis and Shamon Willis and offensive lineman Tysen Lewis. Players who aren’t participating in contact drills due to injury but are there almost every day helping out where they can are tight end Isaac Rex, fullback Masen Wake, linebackers Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley and Keenan Pili and hybrid defender Chaz Ah You.

Coaches are always hesitant to name players who have impressed in spring camp, but one such candidate is tight end Dallin Holker. The junior’s role has increased during Rex’s absence, and he’s added a few pounds in an attempt to get sturdier and become a better blocker.

“Spring ball is a time to improve and work on things you need to work on,” said Holker, who is up to 235 pounds. “I think you can see a lot of progress in a lot of the guys. So it has been good. In the tight ends room, we are all just trying to be there for Isaac. We are trying to work as hard as we can, and be the best we can be.”

Here are a few more developments and observations from camp:

The Cougars have ‘something to prove’

It is clear that losing 31-28 to unranked UAB in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 18 has lit a fire under the Cougars. Players and coaches alike bring it up in almost every interview.

“We did not play as well as we could have in that last game of the year,” said offensive lineman Connor Pay. “We did not go out the way we wanted to go out. And that is very motivating. Even in some of the wins, we didn’t play the way we knew we could play.”

Pay, who is the likely replacement for All-American James Empey at starting center, said developing the ability to approach every game, every practice, with enthusiasm and determination has been stressed for the last three months for the entire team.

“A huge focus for us this offseason, and in spring camp, is making sure we can get to that level of consistency to be a consistent team at the highest level all the time, no drop-offs,” he said.

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Pay said the Cougars “don’t deserve to be complacent” after the season they had. The offensive line, he said, is just “putting our heads down” and working.

“We have got something to prove,” Pay said. “Last year, it was, “How can you keep up the same productivity the 2020 O-line had?’ And now this year, it is ‘Well, your running back (Tyler Allgeier) is gone. What are you going to do now?’” 

Speaking of which, Cal transfer Christopher Brooks is clearly emerging as Allgeier’s replacement. The Cougars worked hard on their running game Monday, and Brooks, Lopini Katoa, Jackson McChesney and Miles Davis got the bulk of the carries. Brooks has also shown the ability to catch passes.

“We want to show people that we can elevate our game and we can control the line of scrimmage all the time. And that takes a lot of work. And we have a lot to do, throughout this offseason and all summer long, just working as hard as we possibly can and not taking anything for granted,” Pay continued. “Because we play some very good teams this year. And week-in and week-out we have to do that. I think that definitely gives us a chip on our shoulder.”

Receivers are ready for the big time

Asked which position group is showing well at the midpoint of camp, Kalani Sitake quickly brought up the receivers. Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney are the proven commodities and are having outstanding camps. Beyond them, the receiver with the most game experience and catches is Keanu Hill, but Fesi Sitake said the battle to be WR3 continues.

The receivers coach said Brayden Cosper, Kody Epps and Chase Roberts are having good camps.

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“Gunner and Puka have played a lot, but even the middle and back half of the receivers room, those guys are bridging that gap,” Fesi Sitake said. “That’s kind of my message this spring, is ‘rise up to the competition in that room, and let’s have a high standard.’ And I think those guys are doing it.”

Sitake said he won’t designate any clear starters in the middle of spring camp, but likes what he sees and nothing is keeping him awake at night.

“Energy drinks are the only thing keeping me up,” he joked.

Last year, Nacua joined the team after spring camp and proved to be as good as advertised. Romney returned for a final year this year after considering a move on to professional football.

BYU wide receiver Puka Nacua hauls in a long pass during game against South Florida at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. Nacua and the Cougars open the 2022 season against South Florida in Tampa.
BYU receiver Puka Nacua hauls in a long pass ahead of South Florida Bulls defensive back as BYU and USF play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Our No. 1 goal the remainder of camp is to stay healthy,” Sitake said. “I know it is a cliche’ but we want to keep guys healthy, while doing everything else we can to get better. So far, I think we’ve done a great job.”

Are there still doubts about the defense?

It is no secret that BYU’s defense will be under the gun in 2002, after underperforming in the last half of the season, particularly in the shootout win over Virginia and the loss to UAB in the bowl game. Of course, a lot of that demise can be attributed to injuries, as the aforementioned Pili, Wilgar and Ah You missed substantial time. 

“I think the safeties room is really deep,” Kalani Sitake said. “It is going to be interesting to see what happens there.”

Sitake is known for moving guys around on defense, but so far only a couple position switches seem to be taking place. Cornerback Micah Harper is seeing a lot of time at safety, while Pepe Tanuvasa is back at linebacker after playing rush end — BYU calls it outside end — on the defensive line last year, partly out of necessity.

“I don’t know that there is any place we are looking at (on defense) where we are really thin,” Sitake said. “We need to get some guys healthy, and then we are even deeper than we are currently right now.”

BYU Cougars defensive back Malik Moore makes an interception against Utah State in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.
BYU defensive back Malik Moore intercepts a pass against Utah State in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Presumed starting safety Malik Moore said last week that practices have been “very tiring” and intense and “way more physical” than in the past. 

“The goal is to keep everybody safe, but when you are on the field, the competitiveness comes out,” he said. “… So when coaches say we are going to keep everybody safe, it is not going to happen. Next thing you know, one on one, and someone gets tackled. We are like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ It is go time. It is physical now. It is really physical.”

Part of the reason for that, Moore said, is the level of physicality that the new running backs/fullbacks — Houston Heimuli and Brooks — bring to practice every day.

“It is definitely benefitting us more,” Moore said. “Of course, you worry about injuries, but injuries can happen when you are just running on air. So it is what it is.”

Injured linebackers make good coaches

As was well-documented in this Deseret News piece, BYU’s defensive line is bigger, stronger and deeper thanks to some good offseason work and a few new arrivals. 

What about the linebackers? With Pili, Wilgar and Tooley out for now, Olympus High product Ben Bywater is clearly the alpha dog of the linebacking corps. 

Kalani Sitake said there is a pretty good battle among a group of four or five others to make it on the two-deep at linebacker. That group includes Tanuvasa, Jackson Kaufusi, Morgan Pyper, Josh Wilson and Tavita Gagnier, who prepped at the same school that produced Zayne Anderson — Stansbury High in the Tooele Valley.

BYU linebacker Ben Bywater is the alpha dog in the linebacker room this spring. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

“It just hurts not having the starters with us right now, but their leadership is here. They are doing a great job coaching,” Sitake said. “It hurt us not having them through the season last year and hopefully we can get them healthy and keep them healthy for this year. But that will give us a good six to nine guys that can play.”

The QB2 battle and prepping for the Big 12

As was detailed Monday in the Deseret News, fifth-year junior quarterback Jaren Hall is playing really well this spring, freed from any worries about competing for the starting job. Roderick has said that Hall has total command of the offense.

What about his backup? Midway through camp, it is apparent that coaches are no closer to naming a QB2 than they were three weeks ago. 

“We need to just keep getting better every day, and we need to keep developing our quarterback depth by figuring out how those guys rank,” Roderick said last week, referring to Jacob Conover, Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters and Cade Fennegan, the Boise State transfer who played the best of the backups when the media was watching Monday.

“Yeah, I thought that we would have more of an idea around now, but it just goes to show how the other guys are all competing. Sol-Jay has kinda crept in there, but Cade is doing some really good things and Jacob has gotten a lot better since the end of last year,” Sitake said. “They are making it really hard for us to decide on it. A-Rod and I will talk more, and we will settle it on the field. We have more practices to go. Today was a good look at it.”

Tuesday, the Cougars released their 2022 schedule, which served as another reminder that Big 12 membership is fast approaching, but the degree of difficulty has already been ramped up. The Cougars will need depth, because they play 10 straight games to open the season before getting a bye in November.

“We gotta stay humble and stay hungry, and just get after it,” Sitake said. “A lot of people want to talk about next year, but this (year) is a good test for us to see if we can stay focused. … We weren’t focused enough as a team to win the bowl game last year, and that was my fault, even with the injuries and all that.”

Sitake said when the Cougars “stay hungry” they are a really good team.

“It is just avoiding things like complacency and entitlement, and that is my job to get these guys ready for that,” he said.