What was going to be the BYU Cougars’ most pressing position battle in the 2023 football season was settled the day after two-year starting quarterback Jaren Hall declared for the NFL draft.

“First thing is, we will never turn down a great player. So if there is a great player that wants to be here, at any position, we will consider them. But yeah, we gotta get a little bit more depth at our skill position areas.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick

On Christmas Eve last December, Pitt transfer QB Kedon Slovis committed to BYU coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. And that was that. When a high-profile transfer like Slovis was makes his decision, there is no need to worry about a QB derby, regardless of what coaches might say publicly.

Just in case, Roderick reiterated Friday when BYU’s 15-practice spring camp concluded at the outdoor practice field behind the Student Athlete Building that Slovis is QB1.

“Kedon is our starter, and I want to make that clear,” Roderick said. “We put him in position to earn that job, and he has clearly lived up to what we expected up to this point. So he will go into fall camp as our starting quarterback.”

The rest of the quarterback depth chart? That’s still up in the air, Roderick acknowledged, saying returning QB Cade Fennegan and junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff are still battling to be QB2 and that the derby will continue when preseason training camp begins in early August.

“Both have had some good days,” Roderick said, while also noting that Retzlaff’s tonsillectomy and resulting complications that kept him out of camp the first few weeks “definitely” slowed his progress.

“But he came on strong,” Roderick said. “Cade is a good player, too. It is a good competition.”

Roderick said if any of the other QBs on the roster — Nick Billoups, Cole Hagen or freshman Ryder Burton — enter the transfer portal, which opened last Saturday, “it will be a surprise to me.”

It won’t be a surprise, either, if BYU’s offense keeps on clicking in the Big 12, after it and Hall carried the Cougars last season when the defense faltered, particularly in the middle of the season.

BYU, which went 8-5, finished the season ranked No. 36 in the country in total offense, averaging a respectable 426.3 yards per game. Matching or exceeding that number will be difficult in a Power Five conference, but Roderick said the pieces are in place if the Cougars can stay healthy.

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Roderick liked the way spring camp went for the offense, even as expected key contributors in 2023 such as receiver Kody Epps, tight end Isaac Rex and transfer running back Aidan Robbins were held out of live (contact) drills and scrimmages.

“We have a long way to go. We have to get a lot better,” Roderick said. “But we made some good progress, too. There was a lot of development from the young guys, and for the most part we stayed healthy. This was the most physical spring we have had since I have been here, and we had very few injuries.”

Sitake and Roderick said Friday that they will now turn their attention to recruiting and scouring the transfer portal for more offensive help, particularly at receiver and perhaps at tight end. Monday, they found another offensive lineman, as Oklahoma State right tackle Caleb Etienne announced his commitment to the Cougars.

“First thing is, we will never turn down a great player,” Roderick said, when asked which positions are areas of need after spring camp. “So if there is a great player that wants to be here, at any position, we will consider them. But yeah, we gotta get a little bit more depth at our skill position areas. We like the guys we have, but we are a little thin right now.”

As for the offensive depth chart, Sitake said they are “pretty close” to having it set, but there could be movement as more players are added and guys return from injuries and offseason surgeries.

“There will be some names we add to provide some more depth and more competition,” Sitake said. “But I think the bulk of our group is put together pretty nicely right now.”

If tradition holds, BYU will not release a post-spring depth chart until Big 12 media days in mid-July. But we’ve got you covered. Here’s the Deseret News’ fourth-annual post-spring stab at what the offensive two-deep chart will look like this fall. Our stab at the defensive depth chart and specialists will be put online later this week:

No quandary at quarterback, remarkably

For a team that had to start a fourth-string quarterback — Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters — last December to beat SMU in the bowl game, the Cougars are remarkably set at the position four months later, thanks to the additions of Slovis, Retzlaff, Burton and Cole Hagen, the former Corner Canyon star. Maiava-Peters is now a running back.

“I am happy with our quarterbacks. I mean, we started all over there. We don’t have a quarterback that has taken a snap for us in a game here yet, so it was pretty much starting from scratch this spring,” Roderick said. “I expect that group to be really solid. We will put a good quarterback on the field no matter who we play.”

BYU QBs gather with coaching staff at the end of opening day of spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility.
BYU quarterbacks gather with coaching staff at the end of opening day of BYU spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo, on Monday, March 6, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Sitake said when spring camp opened in early March that he was pleased with the quarterbacks Roderick brought in, but not giving up on returners such as Fennegan and Billoups. Jacob Conover hit the transfer portal and is now competing with other transfers for the starting job at Arizona State.

“We want to see the other guys keep pressuring (Slovis), keep competing for spots,” Sitake said. “I only know one way, and that is to play the best guys.”

Are Robbins and Ropati ready at running back?

Slovis is easily the Cougars’ biggest offseason acquisition, but UNLV transfer Robbins may prove to be just as beneficial to an offense that had to revert back to a by-committee approach in 2022 because projected workhorse back Chris Brooks, the Cal transfer, struggled midseason to find his footing, then was hit with hamstring issues.

Robbins had surgery on his right wrist in January — the injury actually occurred the second game of UNLV’s 2022 season — and missed contact in camp but was there every day doing everything else.

Quarterback Kedon Slovis, hands off to running back Hinckley Ropati, as BYU practices in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Honestly, my wrist is fine, man,” Robbins said last week. “I am definitely ahead in my recovery process, at least a little bit.”

Roderick said Robbins “really could play right now. We are just being smart. It is a hand thing. We don’t want to mess that up. He looks great out there. Really smart guy, knows what we are doing. We are just protecting him. … We want to get him to the first game healthy.”

Running backs coach Harvey Unga isn’t tipping his hand, but it appears that senior Hinckley “Folau” Ropati will be Robbins’ primary backup, with Miles Davis, Maiava-Peters and Utah State transfer Enoch Nawahine also in the mix. 

“Versatility” is the strength of the group, Unga said. “That has been the fun thing. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things.”

Receiver position needs restocking

That BYU needs more help at the receiver position became apparent in the bowl game, as the Cougars played without departing stars Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney and struggled to move the ball through the air. Also, Kody Epps was out after having had midseason surgery.

Epps missed spring ball, too, leaving junior Keanu Hill and sophomore Chase Roberts as the only experienced pass-catchers in camp.

BYU Cougars wide receiver Keanu Hill (1) runs a route against Cougars defensive back D’Angelo Mandell (5) during the annual BYU Blue vs. White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, March 31, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Epps, Hill and Roberts will begin fall camp as the unquestioned starters, unless the Cougars land a top-notch receiver from the transfer portal. Certainly, they are looking hard for one, maybe two, Roderick acknowledged Friday.

“I made the statement earlier: We want to increase our depth there,” Roderick said. “But we like the guys we have. It is not that we don’t feel like we are good there. It is just that our overall numbers are a little lower than they have been the past two years, and it is a long season.

“You need a lot of guys to get through a season. It wasn’t a reflection on what I think of the guys we have,” he continued. “It is just about having enough of them to get through the Big 12 season. That is going to be a more physical league than what (kind of schedule) we have been playing.”

Freshman Parker Kingston missed the last part of camp with a hand injury, but “was playing really well” before that, Roderick said. Freshmen Dom Henry, Koa Eldredge and Devin Downing are also in the mix to make the two-deep chart. 

“Oh, and Hobbs Nyberg and Talmage Gunther are both reliable guys that you can count on,” Roderick said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see those guys play some this year, too.”

Top tight ends return

BYU’s tight end depth took a major hit early last season when Dallin Holker left and eventually entered the transfer portal. He’s now at Colorado State.

That forced former Freshman All-American Isaac Rex to play more than he would have liked as he continued to recover from a devastating ankle injury in 2021, but Rex was up to the task and the Cougars got through it.

BYU tight end Isaac Rex (83) celebrates his touchdown against he Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Sept. 17, 2022.
BYU tight end Isaac Rex (83) celebrates his touchdown against he Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium in Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Rex had another surgery to clean up some scar tissue when the 2022 season ended, but is back and looking like his former self this spring.

Sophomore Ethan Erickson and freshman Anthony Olsen will back up Rex in 2023, while Roderick said Friday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if prized freshman recruit Jackson Bowers moves into the rotation after he arrives this summer.

“He has a chance to play as a freshman, just because physically he looks like a college football player already,” Roderick said.

A minor overhaul for offensive line

As has been well-documented, Roderick and offensive line coach Darrell Funk have said the Cougars’ offensive line in 2023 could be better than it was in 2022 — which was pretty good. Even though Blake Freeland is off to the NFL and the Barrington brothers — Campbell and Clark — transferred to Baylor, the coaches believe this group will be more athletic across the board.

It is led by former five-star recruit Kingsley Suamataia, who is moving to Freeland’s spot at left tackle. Utah transfer Paul Maile and returning starter Connor Pay seemingly have the center and right guard spots nailed down, and could be interchangeable at those positions.

“I don’t know where I am going to play in the fall,” Pay said. “I just don’t. Because with Paul coming in, and he wasn’t able to participate in spring, we are going to have to figure it out. Is it better with him at guard, and me at center? Or vice versa?”

Junior Brayden Keim got most of the reps with the ones at right tackle in camp and will presumably duel with OSU transfer Etienne to be the starter there.

At left guard, the battle could be between Missouri State transfer Ian Fitzgerald, Utah State transfer Weylin Lapuaho and former junior college basketball player Tyler Little.

“There are four months until the season,” Pay said. “A lot can change.”

Snow College transfer Lisala Tai and freshmen Peter Falaniko, Trevin Ostler and Vae Soifua could also contend for starting spots.

“We are still adding to the room, and we will figure out who we have as we get into May and June,” Funk said on March 17.

BYU’s projected offensive depth chart

Starter — Backup

QB 10 Kedon Slovis (Sr.) — 12 Jake Retzlaff (Jr.)

RB 3 Aidan Robbins (Jr.) — 7 Hinckley Ropati (Sr.)

WR 0 Kody Epps (So.) — 82 Parker Kingston (Fr.)

WR 1 Keanu Hill (Jr.) — 23 Hobbs Nyberg (Jr.)

WR 2 Chase Roberts (So.) — 88 Devin Downing (Fr.)

FB 13 Masen Wake (Sr.) — 22 Mason Fakahua (Jr.)

TE 83 Isaac Rex (Jr.) — 7 Ethan Erickson (So.)

LT 78 Kingsley Suamataia (So.) — 58 Lisala Tai (Jr.) 

LG 65 Ian Fitzgerald (Sr.) — 60 Tyler Little (So.)

C 70 Connor Pay (Jr.) — 68 Peter Falaniko (Fr.)

RG 54 Paul Maile (Sr.) — 61 Weylin Lapuaho (So.)   

RT 76 Caleb Etienne (Sr.) — 64 Brayden Keim (Jr.)