Spring camp preview: Coaching continuity, veteran transfer QB should keep Cougars’ offense rolling
Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick confirms that former USC and Pitt QB Kedon Slovis will get starter’s reps all spring
Even when it is obvious that there is no starting quarterback derby, BYU coaches in the past have entered spring camp every March insisting that the competition to be the man at the pass-loving school’s marquee position is wide open.
“We’ve seen him at his best (when he was at USC). It is our job to get him back to that level, or higher. And I welcome that challenge. … We have all seen what he can do, so let’s get him back there.” — BYU OC Aaron Roderick on transfer QB Kedon Slovis
Not this year, however.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Deseret News on Friday, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick confirmed that former USC and Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis is the clear-cut starter and his personal choice to replace Jaren Hall, who participated in the NFL combine over the weekend in Indianapolis.
“We brought Kedon here for a reason, and he is going to get starter’s reps from Day 1,” Roderick said. “The No. 1 priority for the offense is to develop timing and rhythm with him and getting the players to have confidence in him, and him gaining confidence in them.”
That said, Roderick has confidence in the other quarterbacks in the room: junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff, Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan, walk-on Nick Billoups and freshman Ryder Burton, the Springville High product who graduated last December so he could participate in spring camp.
New Mexico Bowl hero Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters has been moved to running back, but could still be used at quarterback in special situations.
Roderick said Retzlaff was the “best junior college quarterback in the country” last fall and coaches are “super excited” about that addition. He said Fennegan has made a lot of progress and Billoups has improved a lot as well.
“And then Ryder Burton, I am very high on him. He can throw it. That guy is a good player,” Roderick said. “Out of those guys, we need a couple of them to emerge and be No. 2 or No. 3, and I am confident that they will.”
But make no mistake about it: Slovis is going to be the guy.
“We’ve seen him at his best (when he was at USC),” Roderick said. “It is our job to get him back to that level, or higher. And I welcome that challenge. … We have all seen what he can do, so let’s get him back there.”
Because quarterback derbies at BYU are so yesterday.
Spring camp opens later than usual
Although it feels like BYU’s spring camp, which opens Monday, is arriving early this year, given the wintry weather conditions in Utah throughout February, it is actually starting a week later than usual. That’s because BYU’s winter semester started a week later this year.
BYU football key dates
March 23: Coaches clinic for high school coaches with former Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo
March 24: BYU’s Pro Day
March 31: Spring game or scimmage
March 31: Second annual BYU Alumni Game
April 15: Final spring practice
Camp will run through April 15, but the spring game, or scrimmage, is set for March 31 and will be held in conjunction with the alumni game at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Former Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo will be the keynote speaker during the clinic for high school coaches March 23, while BYU’s pro day — featuring Hall, receiver Puka Nacua, offensive tackle Blake Freeland, running back Chris Brooks and others — is the following day, March 24.
Here are some other questions surrounding the offense in spring camp; an article looking at the defensive questions will be published later this week:
Which offensive players will miss spring camp?
While the quarterback position is well-stocked, the receiver, running back and offensive line positions will be missing some key guys in the contact and live portions of practices.
Roderick said fourth-year receiver Kody Epps had shoulder surgery and is “doing really well,” but isn’t quite ready for full contact yet. Epps missed the last five games of the 2022 season with an injury but still finished as the team’s second-leading receiver with 39 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns.
“Kody is squared away. He knows what he’s doing,” Roderick said. “So, not having him isn’t a huge (deal). We might not look as good in scrimmages some days without him, though.”
Running back Aidan Robbins, the transfer from UNLV who began his college career at Louisville, had thumb surgery recently and is in a cast so his availability will be limited. Don’t expect to see him in the scrimmages, either, which BYU’s defenders should be thankful for.
“Aidan is a big guy,” Roderick said. “If you thought Chris Brooks was big, this guy is even bigger. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards at UNLV and he was happy there, but the coaching staff got fired and he entered the portal.”
Utah transfer Paul Maile, who played in 29 games at offensive line for the Utes and logged 17 starts at center and guard, also recently had surgery and will miss spring ball.
“We are not worried about Paul because he is such a veteran player,” Roderick said.
Are BYU coaches looking for more offensive weapons?
Roderick said during signing day in February that he still had two or three open scholarships for offensive players, and on Friday he reiterated that that is still the case. The window for players to enter the transfer portal opens again on May 1, but players could be added at any time the next few months.
The OC said the Cougars are looking for at least one more receiver and perhaps another offensive lineman, although that position is already deep — more on that later.
“If things pan out the way I expect, we will get another receiver, maybe two, and another lineman,” he said. “If it is not two receivers, it will be next best player we can find out there that can help our team.”
Roderick said head coach Kalani Sitake has warned every player that no job is safe, no spot on the depth chart secure.
“We are going to keep trying to bring in the best players we can and build our depth, because that is what you have to have in the Big 12,” Roderick said. “The guys in the program need to embrace those new players, and then you gotta raise your game. That’s just how it works.”
How is star tight end Isaac Rex doing?
Rex was still recovering from the compound leg fracture he suffered in the 2021 regular-season finale against USC throughout the 2022 season, but still caught 22 passes for 320 yards and six touchdowns.
The fifth-year junior had some screws and plates removed from his leg after the season ended, but was back on his feet a week later and is good to go for spring camp.
“Yeah, man, that guy, he is amazing. He just plays all the time. He has been through so much, and he is always available to play,” Roderick said. “He looks better than he did at any point last year. He is not all the way back the way he was before the injury. He isn’t quite there yet. But I am confident he is going to get there by fall.”
Rex and Slovis are already forming a solid bond. They went to Southern California a couple times this winter to throw with former BYU quarterback John Beck and work out at Beck’s 3DQB operation with other top QBs and pass-catchers, and stayed at Rex’s parents’ home.
“I expect Isaac to be back to what he was in our offense,” Roderick said. “Last year, he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t run. It was hard to watch at times, but we needed him and he just gutted it out. … He still had six touchdowns, which is crazy. He is such a weapon. It is not 12 (touchdowns), like he had as a freshman. But he is a really good weapon for us.”
Can the offensive line recover from some big losses?
Roderick said another key objective this spring for him and third-year offensive line coach Darrell Funk will be to sort out the offensive line depth. Brothers Clark and Campbell Barrington, both probable starters in 2023, transferred to Baylor.
Freeland, Harris LaChance and Joe Tukuafu moved on to give the NFL a shot and Arizona State transfer Sione Veikoso died tragically working at a construction site during the holiday break in Hawaii.
“This might come as a surprise to some people, but I think we have upgraded significantly at O line. I think we are going to be better than we have ever been,” Roderick said. “In fact, we have so much depth there it is a problem to sort it out. We have to figure out how to sort that out and who are our best five, and who are the next best guys at each spot.”
Returning mainstays are center Connor Pay and tackle Kingsley Suamataia. The aforementioned Maile joins a group that also includes promising freshman Peter Falaniko, Snow College transfer Lisala Tai and 6-8 junior Brayden Keim.
“We are more athletic this year than we were last year — significantly more athletic,” Roderick said. “And there are several guys that can play multiple positions, and there is less ego.
I mean, there are guys that just want to play. They don’t care if they play right tackle or left guard, they just want to play.”
Roderick said that wasn’t always the case last year, perhaps shedding some light on why the Barrington brothers transferred.
“We had some veteran players who kind of wanted to be what they had been in the past, and it didn’t always fit to get our best lineup on the field,” he said. “I think this year these guys are hungry. A couple of them are unproven. A few of them are proven. But the athleticism of these guys is really impressive and I am really confident we are going to be a really good offensive line.”
Can BYU capitalize on offensive coaching continuity?
New defensive coordinator Jay Hill has a major rebuilding project on his hands, and he will do it with a mostly new defensive staff as Ed Lamb, Ilaisa Tuiaki, Kevin Clune and Preston Hadley moved on and were replaced by Hill, Kelly Poppinga, Justin Ena and Sione Po’uha. Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford was retained.
On offense, coaching continuity is the name of the game. Roderick’s staff of Funk, receivers coach and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake, running backs coach Harvey Unga and tight ends coach Steve Clark has produced top-flight offenses the past 3-4 years and has everything clicking.
“The staff continuity we have now on offense is starting to approach sort of what we had when I was at Utah and how that Utah defensive staff had such good continuity and there was a system in place and kept rolling each year,” Roderick said. “We haven’t arrived or anything on offense, but we have reached a point where we all speak the same language. We have been in this system together. … When you want to make an adjustment or a subtle change to a game plan, or to the offense in general, those things are a lot easier to do when you have all been coaching together for a few years.”
That offensive success and consistency is one of the reasons why Slovis picked BYU over offers from schools in the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12, Roderick said.
“He did his homework. He knew what was important to him,” Roderick said. “He wants to play in the NFL, and it is my goal to help him get there. I think it is a very achievable goal.”