‘Hit the ground running’: BYU opens preseason training camp with an experienced, veteran-laden football team
Linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili and tight end Isaac Rex were among the participants Thursday at BYU’s outdoor practice facility in Provo
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, 46, likes to refer to himself as a “new, old daddy” these days because he became a new father again for the first time in 12 years last month when his wife, Timberly, delivered a baby girl.
Sitake’s other children are 18, 15 and 12.
But while the newborn might be cutting into his sleep a little bit, his veteran-laden 2022 team certainly isn’t. With 88% of their production returning, including 97% on defense — the highest in the country — the Cougars are arguably the most experienced squad in the country.
“It feels like we just hit the ground running. You look at our offense, and (a lot) are coming back. Our defense is also (loaded) coming back. It is fun to just, like, get over that learning curve already.” — BYU linebacker Ben Bywater
That meant the first practice of preseason training camp on Thursday in Provo went as smoothly as any in recent memory, Sitake said of his seventh camp opener.
“Yeah, we are further ahead than last year, for sure,” Sitake said, comparing it more to 2020 when a lot of other teams weren’t practicing due to the pandemic but the Cougars were getting a jump-start with a veteran group led by eventual first-round NFL draft pick Zach Wilson.
Sitake isn’t saying, yet, that this group will do what that 11-1 group did, but he certainly wasn’t complaining as starting quarterback Jaren Hall and the offense looked midseason crisp in a workout without pads and/or hitting. The defense also made some big plays.
“It feels like we just hit the ground running,” said linebacker Ben Bywater, out there with a couple of LBs who were injured for most or part of 2021, Max Tooley, Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar. “You look at our offense, and (a lot) are coming back. Our defense is also (loaded) coming back. It is fun to just, like, get over that learning curve already.”
Bywater said he was impressed with how much bigger guys are, the result of plenty of summer weightlifting sessions.
“It was fun to see everyone’s (bigger) body,” he said.
Experience aside, Sitake said there are still plenty of questions to answer and things to work on before the opener Sept. 3 at South Florida, even as the 95-degree heat turned the outdoor practice field into an oven. And it will probably be hotter, and surely more humid, in Tampa, Florida, in 30 days.
“Right now I feel like we are on track. We feel really good about the talent we have on this team, and the amount of experience that we have,” Sitake said. “A lot of guys, this isn’t their first camp. They’ve been through it. You can tell guys are getting used to the schedule and are used to the grind of summer to fall and the transition.”
Sitake said he was pleased to see that the culture of loving and learning that he has worked so strenuously to build continues to manifest itself.
“Guys looked really, really good, like they prepared well in the offseason,” he said. “Obviously the camaraderie and the connection they have, and the leadership we have on this team is pretty evident from what I saw on Day 1. That being said, there are a lot of things we can work on, things we can get better.”
Hall, in his fifth year but listed as a redshirt junior, said what stood out to him the first day was the dominance of the offensive line and some unexpected physicality.
“It was fun. A lot of energy,” he said. “It feels good to be back playing football. The summer break is always really long. There’s a lot of time away from the competitive feel of football. So it is good to be back.”
Receiver Gunner Romney, who is also back for a fifth year, said it didn’t feel like a typical first day of camp.
“I think everybody is already in midseason form, and everybody is ready to go,” said Romney, who will team with Puka Nacua to give the Cougars one of the best one-two receiving duos in the West, if not the country. “I think that just makes it that much better. We have a whole month before the games start.”
To a man, Sitake, Hall, Bywater and Romney said the No. 1 priority in training camp is to stay healthy. Anybody who follows the Cougars knows that injuries — and the lack of quality depth behind the starters — derailed what could have been a special season.
“There is a lot of work to do, obviously,” Bywater said. “Stay healthy, No. 1. I know that was an issue for us last year. So staying healthy, is a big-time (priority). And obviously you want to stop the run (as a defense). For our front seven, just be strong. … We just need to be versatile and be prepared for anything they are going to throw at us.”
Sitake said he would also like to develop younger players over the course of the next three weeks, but not at the expense of identifying starters and key backups and having them ready for a schedule that could rank among the toughest ones since BYU went independent in 2011. This is the Cougars’ last year with 12 nonconference games, as they will join the Big 12 in 2023.
“Right now, we are competing against each other,” Sitake said. “As (much) as we could do without the pads on, I liked the competition. Probably a little bit too physical, but it is all right. These guys will be fine. We just gotta wait to do some of the banging until we put pads on.”