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What we’ve learned about the Cougars as 2023 spring camp nears its end

Friday’s scrimmage revealed outstanding depth at quarterback, while revamped defense continues to impress

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BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis runs the ball during the annual BYU Blue and White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis runs the ball during the annual BYU Blue vs. White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, March 31, 2023. Slovis has proven to be as advertised since joining the Cougars via the transfer portal in the offseason.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Pitt and USC transfer Kedon Slovis is going to be an adequate replacement for Jaren Hall at BYU’s marquee position, the competition to be Slovis’ primary backup is clearly down to two, the offensive line won’t skip a beat, and the defense will play more aggressively in 2023 but probably still needs some help from the transfer portal.

“I don’t think anybody is technically where we want them to be at this point. We are getting better. I think coach (Sione) Po’uha and coach (Kelly) Poppinga have done a phenomenal job with the defensive line.” — BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

And yes, not much depth and experience at receiver is still a major concern.

In a nutshell, that’s a summary of what we learned during BYU’s 2023 spring football camp, which technically isn’t over. The Cougars are taking this week off to allow staff to spend more time with their families on spring break, then will wrap up camp with three final practices next week.

However, now feels like a good time for a thorough review, partly because the Cougars held their traditional spring scrimmage last Friday, and also because the focus of next week’s practices will be on preparing players to conduct their own player-run practices until everybody gets together again in early August for fall camp.

“It is going to be a lot of work (next week), but more towards getting ready for the season, and trying to find ways to springboard us into the offseason conditioning this summer and see where our team is,” head coach Kalani Sitake said of what’s planned next week. “We might have some light work here and there, just to see where our deficiencies are and try to get them (corrected).”

After the 14-series scrimmage, which included roughly 75 plays from scrimmage, two drive-ending turnovers and seven punts, some deficiencies certainly surfaced — with the reminder that, as usual, a lot of key players were held out or used sparingly.

Overall, Sitake said spring camp has gone well and, most importantly, there have been no major injuries.

Last year, promising defensive end Logan Fano of Timpview High suffered a serious knee injury two weeks into camp and had to miss the entire 2022 season. He has since transferred to Utah.

To date, the most serious injury was suffered by quarterback-turned running back Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, who pulled up lame in an 11-on-11 session midway through camp with a non-contact knee injury that has him sidelined through the remainder of camp.

“Once we get everybody healthy and going I think we are really going to like that running backs group,” Sitake said, noting that the Cougars’ other key offseason acquisition — UNLV transfer Aidan Robbins — is doing everything in camp except contact stuff, due to having had hand surgery a few months ago.

Here’s more of what we’ve learned about the 2023 Cougars after four weeks of practices, most of them held indoors because of extended wintry weather on the Wasatch Front throughout March:

Only one question remains on quarterbacks

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told the Deseret News before spring camp that Slovis was going to get starters’ reps all month, and that indeed happened. The experienced, 6-foot-3, 215-pound QB drew rave reviews from the first practice on March 6 to Friday’s scrimmage and did nothing to tarnish his reputation as an accurate passer and outstanding leader.

“He is what we knew he would be,” Roderick said.

Slovis was not especially sharp in the scrimmage — completing just 6 of 13 passes for 50 yards — and threw an interception (cornerback Jakob Robinson made a fine play, Roderick said), but was limited by the play-calling, by design.

“Yeah, super comfortable,” Slovis said of his experience with BYU’s offense so far. “It is pretty easy (to learn). They make it super easy. They like doing stuff that I like to do, so it has meshed super well. It is not anything crazy or different than I’m used to.”

So for the second year in a row, BYU leaves a spring camp with no starting QB derby to speak of; last year, fifth-year junior Hall had the job won, giving him time to establish himself as the offense’s leader in offseason player-run drills. It worked out well.

Speaking of last year, Jacob Conover left spring practices as the clearcut QB2. That didn’t end well, obviously, as the former four-star recruit hit the transfer portal upon season’s end and is now at ASU — and probably not close to being QB2 in Tempe.

This time around, barring something unforeseen next week, junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff and Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan will spar all summer and into fall camp for the backup QB designation, Roderick said after Friday’s scrimmage.

“I don’t think anybody separated themselves today, but Retzlaff has really been coming on after missing a lot of practice time. So I would say, there is going to be a good battle there for that second spot with Retzlaff and Cade,” Roderick said. “Right now it is between those two to be the backup.”

Retzlaff got the second series in the scrimmage after Slovis got the first, and unveiled his rather unique throwing style to Cougar fans for the first time. His sidearm-type delivery worked well enough to complete 7 of 10 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Roderick or his staff tinkers with Retzlaff’s throwing motion.

Fennegan, who got the fifth and sixth series, threw just two passes, completing one. He showed some decent rushing ability, picking up 12 yards on two carries. He has a tendency to get happy feet — reminiscent of Tanner Mangum.

Nick Billoups, Ryder Burton and walk-on Cole Hagen also got reps, and Billoups turned in the day’s best play with a 23-yard touchdown run. Burton and Hagen also ran for TDs, and Burton threw some dimes to Koa Eldredge, Devin Downing and Nason Coleman.

“I like what I’ve seen from all our quarterbacks,” Sitake said.

Does offense still have some issues?

Friday’s scrimmage wasn’t the first time the defense got the upper hand on the offense when the ones faced the ones. Expected to mostly dominate 11-on-11 skirmishes in camp because of its coaching and personnel (with the exception of QB) continuity, the offense often found itself on the short end of most of those matchups.

Of course, Roderick kept everything simple and basic in most of those live sessions, including the scrimmage when the first six possessions failed to produce points.

Cause for concern?

Not really. Slovis has been without two of his biggest weapons — Robbins and receiver Kody Epps — and tight end Isaac Rex has been limited as he continue to recover from that devastating injury suffered against USC at the end of the 2021 season.

Regarding the pick Slovis threw, Roderick said that Robinson — defensive hero of the New Mexico Bowl for making the game-saving tackle — made an outstanding play.

“I thought (Slovis) did a good job. It was mostly checkdowns,” Roderick said. “He threw a couple of good completions. First play of the game was a really nice completion (to Chase Roberts) for a good gain. But it is hard to run the ball (in scrimmages). We didn’t want to show much. But I thought he did a nice job.”

As has been thoroughly covered, the offense’s biggest issue appears to be depth at receiver, depth that will be at a premium in the Big 12.

Epps is out a few more weeks, leaving Roberts (two catches, 35 yards) and Keanu Hill as the only receivers in camp with much experience.

Punt returner Hobbs Nyberg, kickoff returner and former prep QB Talmage Gunther have done the most with their chance to show what they can do, and freshman Devin Downing caught two passes for 41 yards in the scrimmage to show he’s got a shot to break into the rotation.

But almost everyone associated with the program believes the Cougars need to scour the portal for another experienced receiver. No surprise there.

“I feel like we are really good right now. But I guess I can’t turn down good help. So whenever good players are available, and they fit our program, they fit the mission of our school and our church, and then we will see. We will look that way,” Sitake said last Wednesday when asked if spring camp has turned up any personnel deficiencies. “But we are not out there trying to force it to happen.

BYU coach Kalani Sitake directs players as the Cougars practice in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023.

Head coach Kalani Sitake, directs players as the BYU football team practices in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“We have really good players here that have done some really good things and developed really well. But like I said, I don’t want to turn down any good talent out there.”

Offensive line was thought to be an area of concern when the 8-5 season ended and four or five key guys moved on. But offensive line coach Darrell Funk and Roderick have maintained throughout the spring that they will be OK there, maybe even more athletic than last year.

Time will tell. What is already apparent is that the coaches are giving lots of guys chances to break into the starting five. Rotations on both sides of the line of scrimmage are prevalent and constant.

“Yeah, it is by design. There is a lot of competition there,” Roderick said. “Also, we are trying to figure out what the best competition is, and what our contingency plans are if we get somebody injured. So sometimes you don’t look good because you are trying a new combination. But it is necessary. You have to do it.”

More details emerge on the defense

 As has been well-documented, BYU’s defense is undergoing a major overhaul in 2023, with new defensive coordinator Jay Hill directing the efforts in the wake of the dismissal of seven-year DC Ilaisa Tuiaki.

To a man, the Cougars have said Hill’s approach is entirely different, from the way he interacts with players to his energy in practice, his competitions with players in the weight room, and more.

The word most often used all spring to describe the new style is “aggressive.”

Of course, that aggressiveness wasn’t on display in the scrimmage, due to efforts to keep certain schemes and attacks under wraps until the opener Sept. 2 against Sam Houston. But rest assured, it is there.

“I am super excited, honestly. It is crazy, for a lot of the players, honestly, it hasn’t hit yet,” said defensive end Tyler Batty. “We have been independent for a long time and so to come into this new year with a new staff, and we are in a conference, and a lot of changes, it is just going to be a fun year. So everyone is really excited.“

Defensive stars in the scrimmage were Boise State transfer Isaiah “Zay” Bagnah, fifth-year lineman Atunaisa Mahe, Robinson and George Udo, who had four tackles.

If they can stay healthy, BYU’s defensive line and secondary should be OK entering the Big 12. Linebacker, of course, is the big question mark as the Cougars try to replace Payton Wilgar (turned pro) and Keenan Pili, who transferred to Tennessee in something of a head-scratcher.

“I don’t think anybody is technically where we want them to be at this point. We are getting better. I think coach (Sione) Po’uha and coach (Kelly) Poppinga have done a phenomenal job with the defensive line,” Hill said. “They have gotten much better this spring. We are heading in the right direction but we all have a ways to go.”

Players have raved about cornerback Eddie Heckard, the transfer from Weber State who is expected to team with Robinson to give BYU one of its better cornerback tandems in recent memory.

Adding to the linebacker uncertainty is the fact that returning starters Max Tooley, Ben Bywater and Chaz Ah You are missing camp after offseason surgeries and/or injuries. Isaiah Glasker is running with the ones and has showed promise, as have the Kaufusis — Ace and Maika. Logan Pili — Keenan’s brother — has done some nice things in camp, as has former safety Ammon Hannemann.

But linebacker is definitely a position where the Cougars seemingly need help from the portal.

“We gotta continue to solidify the depth chart,” Hill said, when asked what he hopes to accomplish the last three spring practices. “We gotta continue to find out who the playmakers are. There are three more really critical practices that we have left. There is still movement to be made in the depth chart.”

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BYU Cougars linebackers coach Justin Ena reacts during the annual BYU Blue vs. White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, March 31, 2023. Linebacker depth is an area of concern for the Cougars.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News