Taking stock of the Cougars’ offense, defense and special teams in 2022
Led by fifth-year junior quarterback Jaren Hall and star linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar, BYU has a deep and talented team in 2022
A lot of different words have already been used to describe the type of football team that seven-year BYU football coach Kalani Sitake will have in Provo this season.
Rebuilding certainly isn’t one of them.
Cougars on the air
No. 25 BYU (0-0)
at South Florida (0-0)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MDT
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM
The 2022 iteration of the Cougars is loaded with experience on both sides of the ball, and on special teams. As has been well-documented by the Deseret News and other publications, BYU returns as much production from its 2021 team (which went 10-3) as any other major college football program in the country.
“I am really happy with the talent we have on this team right now,” Sitake said after the Cougars’ first scrimmage of preseason training camp earlier this month. “We are going to keep rolling. We have a few weeks before the (first) game, and there are still a few things for us to work on and to improve on. But from what I see, I am happy. I am really pleased with this group, and with its depth and experience.”
Starting quarterback Jaren Hall has said the sky is the limit for this team, of which he is the clear leader. After the scrimmage, Hall called BYU’s defense “one of the best defenses I have gone against in my five years at BYU.”
Was he only talking about BYU’s defenses, or all the defenses he’s faced in the 19 games he’s previously appeared in? At any rate, it is high praise.
Of course, expectations are high because of Hall’s presence, and more. Traditionally, BYU has always thrived when it has had a veteran signal-caller — like in 2020 when Zach Wilson entered his third season as a starter and guided the Cougars to an 11-1 record and No. 11 final ranking in the AP Top 25 poll.
And this BYU team was better last year than the one in Wilson’s sophomore year (2019). Much better.
“I am really happy with the talent we have on this team right now. ... I am happy. I am really pleased with this group, and with its depth and experience.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
The Cougars defeated six Power Five programs. They went 5-0 against the Pac-12, including a convincing 26-17 win over rival Utah. An outstanding season was marred somewhat by a 31-28 upset loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl, but the Cougars were without Hall (ankle injury), tight end Isaac Rex, receiver Neil Pau’u, and standout linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar in that season finale.
Hall, Rex, Wilgar and Pili are back and are saying they are completely healthy this August. Keeping them that way is priority one for Sitake and his coaching staff, although plenty of effort has gone into developing more depth — particularly on defense — in case the injury bug strikes again.
All told, the Cougars return 18 of 22 starters on offense/defense and both of their outstanding specialists — kicker Jake Oldroyd and punter Ryan Rehkow.
Another difficult schedule notwithstanding, expectations are high for this group. One possible snag: They will play 10 straight games before getting a bye in mid-November. That’s obviously not optimal.
Here’s a quick overview of the offense, defense and special teams:
The biggest question surrounding the offense after the 2021 season was who would replace Tyler Allgeier, the standout running back drafted in the fifth round by the Atlanta Falcons. The answer is Cal graduate transfer Chris Brooks, a physical specimen who has proven incredibly difficult to tackle in camp, according to various reports.
“So far Brooks’ abilities are very similar to what we have seen Tyler do. I think they are similar players,” said offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. “Chris is an excellent receiver, so we are going to feature him in the passing game as well. But I would say most of it is the same.”
At media day in June, receivers coach Fesi Sitake answered another question, confirming that Keanu Hill has emerged as the third receiver behind standouts Gunner Romney and Puka Nacua. But Fesi Sitake cautioned fans to not sleep on a couple of players who have been in the program for awhile — Brayden Cosper and Kody Epps — and said former American Fork standout Chase Roberts is also a rising star.
Offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he has eight players who could start, and another three or four who could start with a little more seasoning. Among those are a couple preseason All-Americans, Clark Barrington and Blake Freeland, who very well could be playing their final seasons in Provo.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki says he isn’t feeling any more pressure than usual this season, but clearly his group wasn’t as deep as it needed to be in 2021 and limped to the finish line. More finger-pointing will ensue if the defense sustains some injuries in 2022 and can’t be more stout than it was last year.
The good news is that Pili and Wilgar are back in the fold and seemingly healthy, and BYU has more capable cornerbacks than perhaps any time in the Sitake era.
If there are question marks, it is at safety — where senior Malik Moore needs a capable running mate — and along the defensive line. Tuiaki and defensive ends coach Preston Hadley have plenty of bodies to work with on the D line, but few game-changer type guys like Khyiris Tonga was two years ago.
That said, Tyler Batty has that potential, coaches have stressed, if he can stay healthy and gets enough help that double teams aren’t customary.
Perhaps the best addition to the defense is Vanderbilt transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally. That coaches hadn’t found a starting spot for the redshirt sophomore midway through fall camp is probably a good sign.
As mentioned, Oldroyd and Rehkow form as strong of a kicker-punter duo as there is in the country. No worries there. Rehkow averaged 48.6 yards per punt last year. That’s really good.
If there are special teams-related concerns, it is at the return positions. Punt returner Hobbs Nyberg was solid in 2021, but he didn’t join the team until midway through fall camp. Talmage Gunther stands ready there if needed.