BYU recruiting: Big 12 to demand greater success in picking the right prospects
Director of player personnel Justin Anderson is in the thick of BYU recruiting operations as the Cougars brace for life as a Power Five program
A football field displaying a defense and offense in formation fills the screen, a visual graphic indicator circles a player, and the play proceeds with the highlighted prospect in full focus.
Staring at the screen is Justin Anderson, personnel director for BYU football.
“I think the one thing you never want to do is panic. When you panic you take the wrong guys, the wrong fit and the wrong players. So, we do our research. We’ll make sure that the guys that we do take, if we do have a spot, are the right kids that can help us.” — BYU football personnel director Justin Anderson
Hours of screen work is a typical work day for Anderson. It is filled with hours upon hours of inspecting the films of current transfer portal athletes and high school recruits for the classes of 2023 and 2024.
With BYU heading to the Big 12 later this year, the art of recruiting inside BYU’s football offices will need to be far more efficient, intense and impactful in the coming months and years than ever before. The need for talent, increased depth and speed on both sides of the ball is, well, demanded.
When Anderson isn’t looking at film, he’s checking a database that enables him to determine BYU’s current roster by position and class, and then projecting needs seven years into the future. Then he’s pulling the levers of BYU’s recruiting mechanisms, making sure he talks to front-line coaches in an ongoing game of football Tetris.
This is part of what BYU’s director of personnel does under the guidance of head coach Kalani Sitake.
“I try and explain it this way,” said Anderson. “It’s kind of like being a general manager at the college level. The head coach makes all the final decisions, but its management of roster, evaluation of recruits, and overseeing all the recruiting processes that go into it.”
It is also communicating with position coaches, keeping them informed, involved and scheduled. It’s providing film, pulling the trigger on research into backgrounds and the fit of prospects.
Sitake hired Anderson right after Bronco Mendenhall abruptly resigned at Virginia in 2021. Anderson was part of Mendenhall’s staff in that Power Five program. He then took a job at East Carolina for four months before accepting a job offer from Sitake.
A seven-year puzzle
Once back in Provo, he was reintroduced to just how big of puzzle BYU roster management can be. “It’s kind of funny. After being gone six years, it was a reminder of what goes into working with missionaries and planning what the roster will look like for what can be seven years with guys coming and leaving. Our database helps keep me organized. I do miss coaching, but this keeps it competitive. It’s a puzzle to make everything fit in place.”
The transfer portal makes things even more interesting — the ability to inject immediate help into a roster with no restrictions of sitting out a year has changed the game. BYU just turned to the portal for QB Kedon Slovis; RB Aidan Robbins; Boise State defensive linemen Jackson Cravens and edge rusher Isaiah Bagnah; Weylin Lapuaho of Utah State; and Weber State’s Nuuletau Sellesin, to name a few.
But it can be tricky. “There’s a saying, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,’ I guess,” said Anderson.
There are good and bad aspects of this new transfer portal deal.
“When the transfer portal first came out, I wasn’t a fan of it. But there’re benefits to it if used properly. You are able to fill your needs with guys who are experienced. It really is the new junior college in a lot of ways,” Anderson said. “Junior college and high school players will be affected by it. With portal guys, you can see how they’ve competed in a major college setting and been developed in the weight room and how the academic load has been managed.”
Anderson said BYU has been fortunate to find the right fits for needs lately — players like Puka and Samson Nacua from Washington and Utah and Chris Brooks from Cal.
BYU, like Virginia, has high admission standards, but what Anderson learned at Virginia is there are a lot more athletes who qualify for a high academic bar than one would think. Lowering the standards to get players may not always work.
“How many guys do you want to put in an academic environment where they’ll be struggling and still try and play football? I think you have to consider what’s right for them. Are you putting them in a situation where they can succeed both on the field and in the classroom?
“We want to make sure they succeed beyond football. I don’t stress too much about it because, tell you the truth, at Virginia we were very stringent academically, perhaps even more stringent than BYU. There are real quality players who left to play in the NFL and we can do the same thing here.
“We evaluate thousands of players, then research why they might come here, if there are any connections and if they fit. That number shrinks and our recruiting target pool gets smaller. Once academics come into play, just like at Virginia, the pool becomes smaller.
When @byufootball landed USU's no. 1 recruit (c/o 22) w/OL transfer @LapuahoWeylin, it was a BIG get.— Tyler Christensen (@byu_insider) January 7, 2023
"I had looks from the SEC, Big 10, and PAC 12, but I chose BYU b/c it holds a special place in my heart and is close to home.”https://t.co/eilpO5Zf74#GoCougs #BYUfootball
“The positive thing here over Virginia and other schools is the religious aspect,” Anderson adds. “This adds a whole new group of people that maybe have a stronger tie than just drawing from alumni, if that makes sense.
“I see the religious aspect as a positive, not a negative. Academics? If they are bad students, we just move on to the next and we don’t even worry about it. We don’t waste time with recruits who aren’t interested. I think it makes it easier when you know what you are clearly looking for.”
BYU may not be finished tapping into the transfer portal, and it could go beyond the Feb. 1 National Letter of Intent signing date established by the NCAA.
“We have a few spots left we’ll consider,” said Anderson.
Those could be a corner, wide receiver or lineman, according to some analysts.
BYU still after transfers
“I think the one thing you never want to do is panic. When you panic you take the wrong guys, the wrong fit and the wrong players,” he said. “So, we do our research. We’ll make sure that the guys that we do take, if we do have a spot, are the right kids that can help us win the Big 12 and can then live the standards here. We could go beyond spring and into summer. We’ll always be ready with a list of names that can potentially fit.”
With six years of experience working at Virginia in the ACC, Anderson is acclimated to what is required in a Power Five conference to compete.
“Recruiting is really, really important. And it takes effort,” said Anderson. “When you recruit and find good players, it makes coaching a lot easier. I would say that’s one thing I’ve learned. I’ve learned that it’s really important to communicate clearly with coaches and players, to stay organized, to know roster numbers, and how everyone fits. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program.
Utah at #20, BYU at #70. That's a pretty big gap to close... Academic standards & being a private religious school will likely stop BYU ever being top 20 but if they can get somewhere between 40-45, they'll be competitive in BIGXII.https://t.co/fGINLwWPmE— 🏳️🌈 BYU Boozer ☮️ (@Truebrewcoug) January 12, 2023
“When you have a group of people who want to recruit and evaluate and all pull in the right direction, then you can have success at the P5 level.”
Anderson’s return to Utah County last year is a comfortable journey. A former BYU player who played with newly hired linebacker coach Justin Ena, he and his older brother Tyler played for both the Cougars and Orem High. Tyler currently coaches at Orem High.
Returning home, Justin is near his parents. His father, Roland, will turn 93 and his mother will be 89 this year.
It just feels right.