‘We definitely have to shift our focus’: How BYU’s football recruiting philosophy is evolving as Cougars prep for Big 12 move
BYU is slowly moving from a football program that relies on developing players into one that looks for ‘ready made’ talent and key additions from the transfer portal
For years, especially when team recruiting rankings are released by the various websites that award stars to high school prospects, BYU football coaches have liked to point out that they are a developmental program.
Knowing they aren’t going to lure a lot of four- and five-star athletes away from Power Five programs — unless that recruit has a longstanding tie to BYU, such as membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors the private school — the Cougars have put a lot of focus on finding diamonds in the rough and other less-recruited players and developing them on their own.
At this time next year, however, BYU will be one of those Power Five programs as a member of the Big 12.
“We had to be a little more developmental because we weren’t a Power Five program. We weren’t in the Big 12 yet. Now that we have been invited and it is out there, this first signing class (in 2023) is going to be a Big 12 signing class. So now we have to shift a little bit of our attention and our resources.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
Does the move up the college football pecking order necessitate a recruiting philosophy change for the Cougars? It depends on which coach one asks.
At last month’s BYU football media day, the Deseret News put that question to at least five different coaches. Most were on the same page, with a few slight differences of opinion.
Bottom line is that the coaching staff knows it needs a talent upgrade at virtually every position, particularly on defense, to compete in the Big 12. Obviously, more depth is also needed so there is less of a drop-off when first-stringers are injured.
“We definitely have to shift our focus,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “You can’t do the same things every year and expect different results.”
It is still relatively early in the recruiting cycle for the class of 2023, but through mid-July the Cougars haven’t exactly upgraded their efforts. They have seven commits, according to 247sports.com, and none of the seven are four- or five-star prospects.
They have commitments from four three-star players: Timpview athlete Pokaiaua Haunga, Springville quarterback Ryder Burton, Skyridge defensive lineman Stanley Raass and Leo Pulalasi, an athlete from Lakewood, Washington.
Three commits — Texas running back Landen Chambers, Skyline athlete Miles Hall and Arizona linebacker Pierson Watson — have yet to be ranked in the 247sports composite rankings but are doubtful to reach four- or five-star status.
From afar, it doesn’t appear that the transition in recruiting philosophy has taken hold just yet. For his part, Sitake seems to realize that upgrades are needed.
“My job is to keep adapting to whatever is out there. We had to be a little more developmental because we weren’t a Power Five program. We weren’t in the Big 12 yet,” he said at media day. “Now that we have been invited and it is out there, this first signing class (in 2023) is going to be a Big 12 signing class. So now we have to shift a little bit of our attention and our resources and bring in the people that can help us reach our goals.”
A quick glance of BYU’s offers list on 247sports.com shows that the Cougars are indeed swinging for the fences. They just haven’t hit anything out of the park yet.
As was documented last month by the Deseret News, the Cougars are going hard after several four-star recruits who are seemingly “ready-made” players from Sitake’s perspective, Latter-day Saint prospects Jackson Bowers, Walker Lyons, Spencer Fano, Ethan Thomason and Hunter Clegg.
“If we are not trying to project and predict things that are going to happen in the future with the game of football, we would be considered foolish,” Sitake said. “I am open to whatever is out there, and if we can cast a wider net, and if our development (philosophy) turns into, ‘Hey, they are ready-made, ready to go now,’ then great.”
Sitake acknowledges that the Cougars have “just never had those types of guys before” that don’t need some form of development. True freshmen rarely crack BYU’s starting lineup, he notes.
“And when you are dealing with missions — nobody comes off a mission ready to go,” Sitake said. “I know that everybody else thinks we just send them off to go and train and run and do drills all the time. I haven’t seen a returned missionary that has showed up ready to go and ready to compete with our guys in any run or anything that we do football-wise in the weight room. I just haven’t.”
In that sense, BYU will always be a developmental program, to some extent. A recent trend in the program has been to “grayshirt” returning missionaries who aren’t home in time for spring ball and hold them out until January.
“You don’t always have to make (player development) your mantra. You can do other things, too,” he said. “We are flexible.”
Sitake said BYU will continue to look in the transfer portal for “ready-made” players, having had success recently with the likes of running back Ty’Son Williams, receivers Samson and Puka Nacua and defensive backs Jakob Robinson and Kaleb Hayes.
“Four guys from the portal last year made an immediate impact and made some big plays for us,” Sitake said. “So this year I anticipate that the transfers we have coming in are going to have a big impact in the same way. Providing depth doesn’t mean you do it all from within. Sometimes you go out and get guys that are in the transfer portal and you bring them in because they fit the program, and because they will provide great depth on the football field.”
This season, Cal running back Chris Brooks, Vanderbilt defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally, Oregon offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia and Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli are transfer portal guys expected to make an impact. Of those four, only Jeudy-Lally and Suamataia will have eligibility remaining when the Cougars hit the Big 12.
“We have to recruit players who are ready faster because of the Big 12,” former BYU recruiting coordinator Jasen Ah You told the Deseret News last March, saying that Sitake’s recruiting philosophy his first five or so years in Provo was to find under-recruited players, attract preferred walk-ons and identify more non-Latter-day Saint recruits with values similar to those at BYU.
Obviously, last fall’s announcement that BYU will join the Big 12 in 2023 has brought changes to that strategy. BYU ranked 55th in the final 2022 recruiting team rankings (247sports.com), up from 79th in 2021. 76th in 2020 and a shaky 90th in 2019.
“I am open to whatever is going to get us the best product, whatever is going to get us the best team,” Sitake said.
Here’s what other BYU coaches had to say about the shift from developmental to more game-ready guys:
Perhaps no coach on BYU’s staff has spoken more about developing guys than Lamb, a former head coach at FCS Southern Utah University. Lamb said there is “no question” that BYU’s developmental strategy has paid off, but needs some tweaking as Big 12 membership approaches.
“That’s true even among five-star recruits,” he said. “Some five-star recruits have more upside than other five-star recruits. So for me, personally, I will always be in favor of looking into the upside and development potential of every recruit.”
Lamb said because he talks about it a lot, some folks get the impression that he is somehow “dictating” BYU’s recruiting philosophy.
“That really couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “But I will say that the guys on the staff really deserve some credit (because) we have consistently now won games with lower-ranked recruiting classes than the teams that we are facing. Some level of credit needs to be given either to the development that we have done with these players, or the recruiting, the insight we have had in recruiting, or game planning, or something. These coaches and players have done a great job.”
With that success in mind, especially last year when the Cougars went 6-1 against Power Five opponents, Lamb believes it wouldn’t be right to abandon what got the program to this point just because they are supposedly moving up in class. They will continue to form a “home base” of players around Latter-day Saint recruits, in-state recruits and Polynesian players.
“We are going to stay with that and won’t be enticed into the internet recruiting game,” he concluded.
BYU’s defensive coordinator isn’t one to buy the notion that some high school players come into a Division I college football program ready to make an immediate impact.
“I have never in all of my time coaching got someone who comes in and is ready, that is like, ‘Oh, snaps, he is really good.’ Like, they are all developmental,” Tuiaki said. “I don’t care what star you are.”
Tuiaki said when he was a position coach at Utah the Utes brought in a four-star defensive tackle that everyone else wanted.
“And he came to us, and he was worse than the walk-ons, because the walk-ons had been in the weight room, they knew the system, they knew the expectation, you could coach them, you had been coaching them for two or three years,” Tuiaki said. “And this kid had a miserable experience because he thought he was going to come in and play right away. And I was like, ‘I thought you were going to come in and play, too. But you can’t play. These other guys are better.’”
Tuiaki said even the great Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei needed more development when he arrived at the U. from Snow College. Same goes for former Cougar defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga, now in the NFL with the Chicago Bears.
“I think to Ed Lamb’s credit, what we have always been doing here (paying attention to measurables in recruiting and how a player projects) is impressive. It is like a Disneyland ride. You have to be this tall to get on.”
BYU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach says the Cougars shouldn’t abandon what got them here, but acknowledges that a certain baseline of talent is critical for them to succeed in the Big 12. He noticed that when he was on Utah’s staff when the Utes made the jump to the Pac-12, particularly in the skill positions and needing more speed.
Roderick says the transfer portal “has been really good for us, because Kalani has done such a good job of establishing a great team culture that we are not losing a ton of players every year. We have lost a few players here and there, but most of the time they are just guys that want to get more playing time, and we have been honest about them about where they stand, so they move on.”
Roderick said Suamataia, a former five-star recruit from the class of 2021 who picked Oregon out of Orem High, is an example of a player who was attracted to BYU’s culture after seeing what another school had to offer.
“Kingsley this year will be a great player,” Roderick said. “We are known as a team, if you watch us play on TV, we look like we are having fun. So I think we are a good destination for portal guys. … We don’t want to live in the portal. But any immediate needs we have, we will take a look. You have to.”
Having also coached at Utah, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah in addition to five out-of-state schools, including Memphis and Oregon State, BYU’s second-year linebackers coach said he has never put much stock in the recruiting rankings and the star system, and won’t start now just because the Cougars are moving to a Power Five conference.
“We look for potential in guys that maybe regular non-football people don’t really understand,” Clune said of his recruiting philosophy. “Like, at linebacker, sometimes the best college linebackers don’t play linebacker in high school. So, I am looking for tall guys that can run and want to bang. Sometimes those are safeties. Sometimes those are running backs. Sometimes something else.”
For example, Clune says BYU linebackers Keenan Pili, Max Tooley and Payton Wilgar were safeties in high school, but recruiters projected them to be LBs at the college level, and all three have flourished in those roles.
“We project guys,” Clune said. “All players need development, or to be taught a new position. And you may think of them as a diamond in the rough, or an unheralded guy, or whatever. But those are the guys who win games for you.”
Mindful of his place in the “pecking order,” Clune said he will follow Sitake’s directives regarding recruiting, but so far they have been aligned and he expects they will be in the Big 12 as the Cougars’ recruiting pool deepens and they cast wider nets.
“Going to the Big 12 doesn’t really change who we look at,” he said. “We go to camps, we evaluate film, all that stuff. We are looking for the same things. It is just maybe more people know about us now because we are going to the Big 12. Maybe that changes. I don’t know.”