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Looking ahead: Will BYU’s football team be a Big 12 title contender in 2023?

Kalani Sitake has a rebuilding project on his hands as BYU enters Big 12 in 2023

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake talks with his players after a Boise State touchdown Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake talks with his players after a Boise State touchdown Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. As the Cougars brace for their first season of Big 12 football, keeping expectations in check may be necessary.

Steve Conner, Associated Press

Projecting what the BYU football team will look like in 2023, and what kind of season the Cougars will put together in their first year in the Big 12, might be a fool’s task at this juncture in the offseason.

All the comings and goings brought on by the transfer portal, the one-time transfer rule and the lingering effects of the pandemic make predicting rosters and depth charts almost impossible in mid-January.

“Making a bowl is a good expectation, because everything will be new. The schedule will be more relentlessly difficult, and if they make a bowl game I think you could say, ‘Hey, that is a good starting point.’ ” — ESPN analyst Trevor Matich on BYU football in 2023

But we will give it a shot anyway.

Not quite four weeks since the Cougars’ otherwise lackluster 2022 season ended on a somewhat positive note with a 24-23 win over favored SMU in the New Mexico Bowl — BYU’s fourth-straight win — a lot of uncertainty surrounds the makeup of the 2023 team.

As of this writing on Tuesday, a dozen players had entered the transfer portal, the most recent perhaps the most surprising of all — cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally. Coaches expect more attrition in the coming months, just like any other year.

And, sadly, the Cougars will be without one player who was projected to be a starter on a partially revamped offensive line trying to replace NFL-bound Blake Freeland, Harris LaChance and Joe Tukuafu, and Baylor-bound Clark and Campbell Barrington. Arizona State transfer Sione Veikoso died tragically in late December while working at a construction site in his native Hawaii during winter break.

The aforementioned offensive linemen will be joined at BYU’s Pro Day in late March by stars who had eligibility remaining, such as quarterback Jaren Hall, receivers Puka Nacua, Brayden Cosper and Gunner Romney, and linebacker Payton Wilgar.

Running backs Chris Brooks and Lopini Katoa, defensive backs D’Angelo Mandell and Kaleb Hayes, and defensive linemen Lorenzo Fauatea, Alden Tofa, Pepe Tanuvasa and Earl Tuioti-Mariner are out of eligibility and will also have to be replaced.

Bottom line: After getting 85% of his production back last year, a development that had expectations soaring for the 2022 team, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake faces a fairly significant rebuild this coming season.

The rebuild begins

Appearing on BYUtv’s “BYU Sports Nation” show Tuesday, ESPN analyst Trevor Matich, a former Cougar, said fans should keep their expectations in check this coming season.

“Making a bowl is a good expectation, because everything will be new. The schedule will be more relentlessly difficult, and if they make a bowl game I think you could say, ‘Hey, that is a good starting point.’” Matich said. “If they get to seven or eight wins, that would be pretty phenomenal. Now, it is possible they could do more than that. We will see. I don’t want to put a ceiling on them.”

The roster retooling process has already started, obviously, as the Cougars have been extremely active in the transfer portal and figure to remain on the lookout well into the offseason for instant help.

At least nine transfer portal guys have committed to and/or signed with BYU recently, most notably well-traveled quarterback Kedon Slovis (USC/Pitt), running back Aidan Robbins (Louisville/UNLV) and Boise State defenders Isaiah Bagnah and Jackson Cravens.

Of the 16 high school players who signed in December, the one expected to make the most immediate impact is probably Jackson Bowers, a tight end from Arizona who caught 110 passes for 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns in his prep career at Mesa’s Mountain View High. 

A couple of high schoolers have announced they will be joining the program as preferred walk-ons — which means they are guaranteed a roster spot, but not a scholarship.

Here’s more on how the 2023 team will look:

Quarterback room suddenly crowded

Although the early signing period expired Dec. 23, BYU is still looking to add a few more high school and/or junior college recruits when National Signing Day arrives on Feb. 1. 

Although Slovis and Springville High’s Ryder Burton are joining a quarterbacks room that includes New Mexico Bowl winner Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, Cade Fennegan and Nick Billoups, the staff apparently is still looking to the future. BYU signed junior college quarterback Jake Retzlaff on Tuesday as part of its 2023 class. 

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore threw for 4,596 yards and 44 touchdowns last season for Riverside (California) City College and is ranked as the No. 1 junior college QB in the country and No. 46 player overall by ESPN.

Former Corner Canyon quarterback Cole Hagen, who signed with Yale before a church mission, is also expected to join the QBs room this spring as a preferred walk-on.

Still in running for another running back

The Cougars presumably solved their void at running back left by the departures of Brooks and Katoa when they signed Robbins out of the transfer portal in December, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped looking for more depth at the position. BYU is reportedly still in the mix for El Paso, Texas, high school back LJ Martin, a four-star prospect who committed to Stanford but withdrew that pledge after coach David Shaw stepped down and did not sign in December.

Martin, 6-1, 210, is said to be leaning toward Texas Tech, so Cougar coaches obviously have some work to do to get him to Provo. Miles Davis and Hinckley Ropati showed flashes last season and could also figure into the mix.

“There will be tremendous excitement for BYU football,” Matich predicted on BYUtv. “The offense will pick up where it left off this year, and will probably be a little bit better, I think, because of those young receivers and because of an exciting running back room — Miles Davis and the rest of them. There is some real excitement with the skill players.”

Getting the right receivers a priority

As Matich mentioned, the Cougars would be OK with the receivers they have returning, but to truly thrive in the Big 12 they need some help there, particularly in the speed category. Replacing Nacua with a similar talent is probably impossible. However, Sierra Canyon (California) prep receiver Josiah “JoJo” Phillips should be able to contribute immediately.

Top returners are Keanu Hill, Chase Roberts and Kody Epps, assuming he returns healthy after suffering a season-ending injury in the loss at Liberty.

On BYU’s February Signing Day wish list are Eastern Washington transfer Freddie Roberson and Snow College product Marquis Montgomery, who recently released a top seven list that includes BYU.

Who else is back on offense?

One of the better offensive lines in BYU history is mostly moving on, but a couple of key cogs remain: left tackle Kingsley Suamataia and center Connor Pay. So three starting spots are up for grabs among transfer portal additions Weylin Lapuaho (Utah State) and Ian Fitzgerald (Missouri State), and returning players Brayden Keim, Lisala Tai, Tyler Little, Peter Falaniko, Donovan Hanna, Ben Ward and Trevin Ostler.

Offensive line coach Darrell Funk has some work to do after losing Freeland and LaChance to the pros and the Barrington brothers to Baylor.

Defensive coaching shuffle is complete, roster renovation continues

After going a couple of years with the same 10 assistant coaches, Sitake has already changed the look of his coaching staff this offseason. 

The Cougars will be breaking in an almost entirely new defensive staff, after seven-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki was demoted midseason and eventually pushed out after the Stanford game and replaced by Jay Hill. The former Weber State head coach retained cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford and brought in Kelly Poppinga, Justin Ena and Sione Po’uha.

Name tags may be in order when the Cougars open spring camp in early March.

Hill has said the defense will be more aggressive and patterned after the defenses he had at Weber State and he worked on at Utah before he became the Wildcats’ head coach. They will almost certainly run a 4-3 defensive front; Tuiaki’s penchant for dropping eight defenders into pass coverage probably won’t be duplicated.

Key defensive returners include linemen Tyler Batty, Caden Haws and John Nelson, linebackers Max Tooley and Ben Bywater and defensive backs Jakob Robinson, Micah Harper, Malik Moore, Talan Alfrey and George Udo. Along with the aforementioned Boise State transfers, the Cougars have picked up defensive linemen Wyatt Dawe (SUU) and Nu’u Sellesin (Weber State) out of the transfer portal.

“I think the defense will generate a lot of excitement. I think they will give up some big plays. But with their new style of attacking, it will be a new experience for BYU fans. Instead of sitting there watching BYU’s defense read and react and keep everything in front of them, they are going to see BYU’s defense dictate to the other side,” Matich said. “Sometimes the Cougars will win, sometimes (opponents) will go over the top. But it is going to be a whole lot of fun.”

Let the unpredictability begin.


BYU Football in 2023

Key offensive losses: QB Jaren Hall, WR Puka Nacua, WR Gunner Romney, WR Brayden Cosper, RB Chris Brooks, RB Lopini Katoa, OL Clark Barrington, OL Blake Freeland, OL Harris LaChance, OL Joe Tukuafu, K Jake Oldroyd.

Key defensive losses: LB Keenan Pili, LB Payton Wilgar, LB Pepe Tanuvasa, DB Gabe Jeudy-Lally, DB D’Angelo Mandell, DB Kaleb Hayes, DL Lorenzo Fauatea, DL Alden Tofa, DL Earl Tuioti-Mariner.

Key offensive returners: RB Miles Davis, RB Hinckley Ropati, TE Isaac Rex, FB Masen Wake, WR Kody Epps, WR Keanu Hill, WR Chase Roberts, OL Connor Pay, OL Kingsley Suamataia.

Key defensive returners: DB Jakob Robinson, DB Micah Harper, DB Malik Moore, DB Talan Alfrey, DB George Udo, LB Ben Bywater, LB Max Tooley, DL Tyler Batty, DL Caden Haws, DL John Nelson.

Key newcomers: QB Kedon Slovis, RB Aidan Robbins, DE Isaiah Bagnah, DL Jackson Cravens, OL Weylin Lapuaho, OL Ian Fitzgerald, WR Josiah Phillips, CB Jayden Dunlap, TE Jackson Bowers.