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Wish list for BYU football heading into Big 12

Former BYU players identify what the Cougars need before joining Power Five conference

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BYU coach Kalani Sitake tells during loss to Notre Dame at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake gets hyped up after his team scores against Notre Dame, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

BYU has about 230 days to prepare for the opening game of the 2023 football season as a member of the Big 12 Conference.

It will take a lot of work. Growing pains are expected. Fan expectations need to calibrate with reality. There are tons of things the program needs to compete week-in and week-out against Big 12 opponents.

It took former Mountain West Conference members TCU and Utah almost a decade in the Big 12 and Pac-12 to recruit enough talent and depth to reach the upper echelons of their respective leagues, with the Horned Frogs making it to the CFP championship this season.

I polled former BYU players, asking them if they had a magic wand to wave, what would be the top three things on their wish list for head coach Kalani Sitake to get in the next 200 days.

At the top of the list are resources and better success in recruiting. Said former corner, Derwin Gray, who played in BYU’s 1990 win over defending national champion Miami: “If you go into a fight with a water gun, you are going to lose. You need the resources to compete and win.”

Here’s what they said:

Derwin Gray, author, former BYU, Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panther DB, lead pastor of Transformation Church, South Carolina

  1. Entering the Big 12, Sitake and his staff must create a culture of uncommon belief, uncommon enthusiasm, uncommon effort and uncommon discipline.
  2. It would be great for Sitake to land some premier defensive tackles, defensive ends and cornerbacks through the transfer portal.
  3. The lifeblood of college football is recruiting, and entering the Big 12 I’d love to see Sitake land the best LDS players in the country and key elite non-LDS players in the 2024 and 2025 recruiting cycle.

Reno Mahe, a former RB coach under Sitake and player for the Philadelphia Eagles

  1. Give Sitake his players. Ask about Khyiris Tonga. Him getting into school was a nightmare.  Some players Sitake needs won’t be allowed in, even after serving a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  2. Let him own his program. The most successful programs allow the head coach to have a say on anything that touches the program. I hope he has the freedom to have full control.
  3. Proper funding. From recruiting to coaching to anything that involves football, it needs to be properly funded. It is hard to recruit against the big boys when your budgets is with the small boys. I don’t know the numbers, if the rumors are true, I hope the Big 12 can change that.

David Nixon, former BYU linebacker, former Oakland Raider, Houston Texan and St. Louis Ram and current BYUtv analyst

  1. Hire a consultant that has lengthy experience coaching in the Big 12 to help with the transition and what to expect.
  2. Detailed workout regimens that prepare players’ bodies for the grind of a P5 conference schedule.
  3. Recruiting. Figure out what the perfect balance of transfer portal and high school kids is; how to build a sustainable team with experience and depth.

Riley Nelson, former BYU QB, current KSL Radio game color analyst

  1. A QB. Hopefully Kedon Slovis is the guy everyone hopes he will be and if he isn’t, someone else will step up. A good QB increases your team’s margin for error exponentially and can cover a multitude of deficiencies. At all levels of football in today’s game, the guy under center has the most outsized impact on the team’s success.
  2. Humility. There’s nothing like the real thing. As much as we all want to believe that the recent schedules are similar to what BYU will face, they are walking into a whole new arena. The independence schedules, especially recently, were better than what G5 would have been, but a P5 conference schedule is a different level. Utah and TCU made the jump with BCS bowl victories in their very recent past and struggled for multiple years. The program needs to accept the coming challenges with humility and courage. That will produce the most rapid rate of improvement and adjustment needed to compete consistently.
  3. Patience. As much as I like to dream that BYU will be at the top of the conference and competing in the expanded playoff in its first few years in the conference, history has shown that to be the extremely rare exception, with no true precedents. It will take more time ... more time than most of us think.

Kalin Hall, former running back, father of QB Jaren Hall

  1. Three massive three-technique trench players.
  2. Multiple 6-foot-4 playmakers with sub. 4.4 speed.
  3. Four defensive backs the caliber of Derwin Gray and Mike Davis.

Mitch Mathews, receiver on game-winning Hail Mary to beat Nebraska 2015

  1. Big O-line.
  2. Big D-line.
  3. Me as a receiver.

Margin Hooks, CEO, Sky’s The Limit Training for wide receivers

  1. Speed.
  2. Depth.
  3. Speed. Explosive plays are a must.

Eric Drage, 12 TD catches 1992

  1. Depth.
  2. Depth.
  3. Depth.

(“I’d also include more toughness up front on both sides of the line; I think changes they’ve made on defense will do this. They need to bring more pressure.”)

Bronson Kaufusi, former Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets defensive end

  1. Most physical guys in the trenches.
  2. Elite pass rush.
  3. Immediate impact players from transfer portal/recruiting.

Writing for Fan Nation, associated with the University of Central Florida, Brian Smith said Big 12 newcomers have to look at how Georgia did it to understand the span between the national championship Bulldogs and TCU.

He listed important things Georgia did: 1) Spend money; 2) Have a top-notch strength and conditioning program; 3) Hire a great staff; 4) All the above attracts the top recruits.

Well, that’s all true. But Texas has the most money and it didn’t make the CFP. Texas A&M had the No. 1 recruiting class in 2022 and had a losing record.  

The truth is, it takes a lot of resources, talent, many intangibles, momentum and luck. But of all of them, recruiting has to be at the top.

As Dr. Gray put it the other day on ESPN 960 AM radio, “You can’t out-coach recruiting.”   

TCU found that out Monday night at SoFi Stadium.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart told The Athletic: “If you don’t have good players, you have no chance.”

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The Big 12 Conference logo is seen on a goal line pylon before Duquesne plays TCU in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ron Jenkins, Associated Press