‘Handling high expectations’: Five storylines to watch as BYU prepares to begin preseason camp
The Cougars enter their final season as an independent with plenty of momentum, having gone 21-4 the past two seasons and boasting a standout quarterback in Jaren Hall.
The BYU Cougars entered the last two college football seasons with something to prove.
In 2020, after going 7-6 in each of the previous two seasons, they were eager to prove they were better than that.
In 2021, they wanted respect and validation after going 11-1 and finishing No. 11 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll against a schedule that was mostly marshmallow-soft.
So as the Cougars continue preparations for the 2022 campaign with the opening of preseason training camp on Thursday, what is left to prove?
“We stumbled a couple times last year in games we shouldn’t have lost. So now the challenge this year is handling high expectations. That’s a different role than we have been in, but I embrace it and I expect us to be good, too.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
Plenty, says head coach Kalani Sitake, who enters his seventh fall camp at BYU with his entire coaching staff intact from 2021, but with a larger support staff and more resources as the Cougars play out their final year of independence before joining the Big 12 in 2023.
Namely, the Cougars aren’t happy with the way last season ended — a puzzling 31-28 loss to UAB in the sleet-and-wind-filled Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. That left them at 10-3 and put, in the words of fifth-year senior receiver Gunner Romney, “a really bad taste in our mouths.”
While generally conceding that his program is on an upward trajectory — BYU has won 21 of its last 25 games — Sitake said at BYU football media day in June that steady improvement remains the goal.
“We need to be as good as we possibly can,” Sitake said. “We need to make sure that our guys are ready to roll, and that we have good depth. So if we can get that done, I think we will have a good shot.”
Indeed, depth, or the lack thereof, directly contributed to that season-ending loss to UAB, and lackluster November performances against teams BYU should have crushed (Georgia Southern and USC) but eked by with impressive fourth-quarter drives.
What motivates the Cougars this year?
“I think it is very similar to what we have said in past years — just keep working,” Sitake told the Deseret News last February. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
The Cougars are “doubling down on our culture,” Sitake said, emboldened by a new “unprecedented” contract he signed last Dec. 10. It is a culture of gratitude, perseverance and demanding the best from one another, he said.
“We are never going to be a program that is complacent and feels like we have arrived,” he said.
There isn’t a lot of mystery, a lot of undecided position battles, surrounding the 2022 team. The Cougars return more than 84% of their production from 2021, the most in the country.
With tons of starters returning on both sides of the ball, no new position coaches or coordinators and Sitake seemingly settled in as the Cougars’ leader for as long as he wants the job, there aren’t a lot of questions or concerns hovering over the 2022 iteration of the Cougars. Can BYU handle those lofty expectations?
“This year, people expect us to be good,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said at media day. “So we have to deal with handling success. We are trying to prove now that we aren’t just a one-year, two-year good offense, that we are going to be a team that is good every year, and that we don’t look past anybody.
“We stumbled a couple times last year in games we shouldn’t have lost.” Roderick continued. “So now the challenge this year is handling high expectations. That’s a different role than we have been in, but I embrace it and I expect us to be good, too. We have got to learn to handle it.”
With the opener about a month away — Sept. 3 against South Florida in Tampa — and another solid schedule that includes five Power Five opponents, here are five compelling storylines to watch as the month unfolds:
Impact of the departures, newcomers
Attrition is a fact of life in college football, and there will probably be a few players who participated in spring camp and were on the roster that BYU released at media day who are no longer on the team. Already, offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga and defensive back Isaiah Herron have left the team since spring camp ended, for various reasons.
The good news for BYU is that the transfer portal has been a net positive, to date. Among Sitake’s portal finds this year are Cal running back Chris Brooks, Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli, Vanderbilt defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Oregon offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia.
If those guys can have as much of an impact as last year’s key transfers — receivers Puka and Samson Nacua and defensive backs Jakob Robinson and Kaleb Hayes — the Cougars will be in good shape.
Brooks is the obvious candidate for newcomer-of-the-year honors, seeing as how he will be their featured back, but don’t count out Suamataia, who was a five-star recruit for a reason a few years ago. Defensive linemen said during media day that the Orem High product is almost impossible to beat one-on-one.
“Man, we have done pretty well with the portal, and we are winning games,” 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, and we haven’t lost a ton of guys that we didn’t want to lose. So far it has been good for us. We don’t want wholesale change every year. We don’t want to live in the portal. But any immediate needs we have, we will take a look. You have to.”
Wanted: A replacement for a BYU all-timer, RB Tyler Allgeier
While the aforementioned Brooks will get the bulk of the carries, don’t expect him to carry the load by himself. Roderick said the Cougars will rely on their receivers, tight ends and fifth-year junior quarterback Jaren Hall more this year.
Given his age as a returned missionary and lengthy amount of time in the program, Hall is headed for the NFL after the season, barring something totally unforeseen. He’s being mentioned as a possible NFL draft pick, perhaps even a first-rounder if he puts together a season that many expect him to have.
A minor storyline entering spring camp last March revolved around Hall’s backup. Would it be Jacob Conover or Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan? Roderick has tabbed Conover as QB2, partly because Fennegan has been slowed by injury.
As was reported by the Deseret News at media day, junior tight end Isaac Rex plans to be ready for fall camp after sustaining a horrific lower leg injury in the win over USC. Rex’s presence gives BYU’s offense more versatility, takes some pressure off up-and-coming tight end Dallin Holker and allows Roderick to dig deeper into his bag of tricks.
Still, Brooks has the potential to spring some Allgeier-type runs, Roderick said.
“He is a couple of inches taller than Tyler and about 20 pounds heavier, but he’s also fast,” Roderick said. “He is a slasher that breaks tackles. He doesn’t mess around trying to juke people and dance in the backfield. He gets downhill and you have to bring it to stop him. If you are a safety you’ve got a decision to make if you want to take him on, because he is a big, fast guy, and he is an excellent receiver.”
Romney, Puka Nacua and Keanu Hill figure to be BYU’s top three receivers, while Brooks will be backed by Lopini Katoa, Miles Davis and Jackson McChesney.
Safety Malik Moore needs some company
BYU’s depth chart is fairly set going into fall camp. As mentioned previously, there aren’t a lot of position battles to get excited about. But there is one exception: strong safety.
In other words, who will be standout free safety Malik Moore’s running mate?
Redshirt sophomore Ammon Hannemann was listed as the starter on the “offseason depth chart” that BYU distributed in June, with converted cornerback Micah Harper (who missed all of last season with a knee injury) and fellow redshirt freshman Talan Alfrey his backups. Moore’s backup is listed as Hayden Livingston.
Harper saw a lot of action as a true freshman in 2020, and has the most experience of any of the aforementioned. Livingston has been cross-trained to play both safety positions, and could easily move into the starting strong safety spot. He’s reliable, and a fairly good tackler.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki tends to err on the side of experience, but acknowledged at media day the spot opposite Moore is wide open.
“The silver lining is these guys are hungry. These guys are ready to get after it. They know the expectations are higher. They know that they can do better and should do better (than last year),” he said.
Offensive line needs to come up big
Stop us if you have heard this before: BYU’s offensive line in (insert year) has the potential to be the best ever. Yes, you have heard it before. Is this the year the unit finally lives up to lofty expectations? Because expectations in 2022 are really, really high.
“We talk to them about this all the time — just because that (dominance) happened last year doesn’t mean it will happen again this year,” said offensive line coach Darrell Funk. “You gotta start from square one again. We are going to have to evolve and do some different things, because we are going to have more of a target on our back.”
Funk said the entire unit “is in the right mindset” and has shown no sign of complacency. And although the group features stars and potential NFL draft picks such as left guard Clark Barrington, left tackle Blake Freeland and the aforementioned Suamataia, Funk said no jobs have been won yet.
“They will be ready to rock by the time we start camp in August. I know that,” Funk said in June.
One possible position battle to watch in camp will be right tackle, where redshirt junior Harris LaChance is attempting to hold off Suamataia and redshirt sophomore Brayden Keim.
Also, sophomore Connor Pay and senior Joe Tukuafu are the candidates at center to replace James Empey. Does Funk go with the more experienced Tukuafu, or the younger, more promising Pay?
“Right off the bat, like how we repped it in spring, Connor and Joe will get equal reps with the ones at center,” Funk said. “They both play guard, too. Connor plays the left side. Joe plays the right. Connor can play (tackle), too. It is going to be interesting to see.”
Maintaining momentum for Big 12
Sitake and company have said for months now that their entire focus is on the 2022 season, and not beyond that when the Cougars enter the Big 12 in 2023. Maybe that’s the media’s job.
On the surface, it appears that BYU will be rebuilding in 2023 — a scary thought for those hoping to see the Cougars make an instant impact in football in their new league in a year.
Consider that BYU will probably lose Hall, Brooks, Heimuli, Romney, Nacua, Rex, Freeland and Barrington to graduation and/or the NFL next spring. And that’s just on offense.
Defensively, stars such as defensive end Tyler Batty, oft-injured flash linebacker Chaz Ah You, cornerbacks D’Angelo Mandell and Kaleb Hayes, defensive back Moore and linebackers Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley and Keenan Pili will probably move on. The cupboard could be quite bare.
Sitake and his staff used a lot of spring camp practice time to develop depth, and that practice should continue this fall, for multiple reasons.
“The silver lining on everything (last season) is guys got hurt, but young guys stepped up and made some really good big-time plays and gained valuable experience,” Sitake said. “So going into this year it is like: OK, how can we get our depth even better?”
The obvious answer is getting big leads so reserves can play more in the second half, which is what happened in 2020 when Zach Wilson engineered all those blowouts, an 11-1 record, and made himself the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.
“We need to develop the rotation (of substitutes),” Sitake said. “Hopefully we can get that done. I would love to have all 123 guys be able to start for us. But until we get there, I won’t feel comfortable until we get all of them there.”