BYU football coach Kalani Sitake and his predecessor Bronco Mendenhall take great pride in putting players into the NFL and they have a lot to boast about.
The current group of professional Cougars may be the strongest in decades and possibly in program history. The lineup features impact players Fred Warner (49ers), Jamaal Williams (Saints), Michael Davis (Chargers), Khyiris Tonga (Vikings), Taysom Hill (Saints), Tyler Allgeier (Falcons), Sione Takitaki (Browns), Dax Milne (Commanders), Brady Christensen (Panthers), and free agents Harvey Langi and Kyle Van Noy.
In addition, Zach Wilson (Jets), Matt Bushman (Chiefs), Zayne Anderson (Bills), Chris Wilcox (Steelers) and Ty’Son Williams (Cardinals) are also on rosters, along with newly drafted Jaren Hall (Vikings), Puka Nacua (Rams) and Blake Freeland (Colts).
Andy Reid is preparing for his 11th season as head coach of the Chiefs. The former BYU offensive lineman is one victory away from tying Cowboys legend Tom Landry (270) for the fourth most wins in NFL history.
“I remember when I was being recruited and BYU was going through some down years, but I knew if you were good enough, you were going to get on an NFL roster. There were always BYU guys on NFL rosters,” said former Cougar quarterback John Beck, who was selected by Miami in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. “Not only do we have coach who is exceeding at a high level, but the accumulated total of BYU guys that are on rosters is everything the program has aimed to do with Kalani there. He has made it important for guys to know he wants you to have a great BYU experience and make it to the NFL.”
There is no shortage of Super Bowl rings among the biggest names in BYU history, including Steve Young (3), Jim McMahon (2), Marc Wilson (2), Bart Oates (3) and current athletic director Tom Holmoe (4), but has the NFL ever seen this much combined BYU talent in a single season?
“I don’t think so,” said Robbie Bosco, former BYU national champion quarterback and third-round draft pick by Green Bay in 1986. “These guys that are playing now are making a huge impact on their team and on the league. It’s huge. It’s so good for BYU to get these kinds of players in there and to be doing what they are doing.”
Good for sure, but are they the best?
“They might be?” Beck said. “Fred could be the premier player at his position in the entire league. I look at Taysom. He plays a unique role in New Orleans but look at how long he’s been doing it. Allgeier played great as a rookie and Jamaal has been at an elite level for several seasons. Not only are guys on rosters, but they are critical pieces to their teams.”
Williams rushed for 1,066 yards last season and led the NFL with 17 touchdowns. Warner anchored the 49ers defense that finished one game short of the Super Bowl. Allgeier exploded for 1,035 rushing yards in his rookie season in Atlanta. Hill remained the most versatile player in NFL history by becoming the first player since the league merger in 1966 to amass 10 career touchdown passes, 10 touchdown receptions and 10 touchdown runs. Davis is on track to earn $7 million this season defending passes in the Chargers secondary.
“The depth of the players BYU has in the NFL is a testimony to recruitment and development,” said Derwin Gray, a former Cougar defensive back and fourth-round selection by the Colts in 1993. “BYU has arguably the best inside linebacker in football (Warner), arguably the best rookie running back (Allgeier). Davis has turned himself into a reliable starter at cornerback. Taysom is a freak of nature and a human highlight show.”
If the debate was over which decade of BYU generated the most impactful NFL players, it would be easy to defend the 1980s and even the 2000s. But as for a talent-laden specific season, like the one that kicks off in September, this group might take the cake.
“I totally agree based on impact and contribution,” said David Nixon, a former BYU linebacker who signed with the Raiders in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. “It truly is fun every Sunday when you can flip to almost any game and there is a BYU guy on the field.”
“The early ’80s was prolific! With the line of QBs from Virgil Carter, Gifford Nielson, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young doing as well as they did in the NFL. That was just outrageous,” said Chad Lewis, former BYU tight end who played in three Pro Bowls with the Eagles. “We currently have some of the most talented guys we have ever seen playing and thriving in the NFL.”
New kids in town
Hall, Nacua and Freeland represent the newest wave of draft picks. Between minicamps and contract negotiations, their NFL experience is already underway.
“Three guys that in the perfect situation, could have been first-round picks. They are incredibly gifted players with their own skills,” said Lewis. “I think their coaches are going to be very excited when they see them work out with the other guys. It’s interesting that they all could have come back to BYU for their senior year.”
Hall will be tutored by veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins in Minnesota. Nacua will catch alongside superstar Cooper Kupp in Los Angeles, and Freeland will block for running back Jonathan Taylor in Indianapolis.
“I love it. I think it’s awesome,” said Beck of Hall’s fifth-round draft selection by Minnesota. Beck has worked as Hall’s personal quarterback coach off campus for several years. “It doesn’t matter what round he went in. To me, it’s an awesome situation.”
Entrance into the Big 12 is expected to create even more opportunities for BYU’s future NFL prospects.
“It’s interesting right now that we are seeing all of these impact players in the league. That’s what independence did for us. We were on ESPN almost every week. It’s all about talent and exposure,” said Nixon, a BYUtv football analyst. “In the Big 12 we are going to have more of it. I’d argue we are seeing the tip of the iceberg at this point. Seeing multiple guys drafted every year is going to become the trend.”
“It’s fun playing against friends and former teammates,” said Kyle Van Noy on the “Y’s Guys” podcast in March. Van Noy is a free agent with two Super Bowl rings and looks to sign with a new team later this summer. Last season, the linebacker reunited with a handful of former Cougars when they faced his Chargers.
“I didn’t say anything to Tyler (Allgeier) during the game, but I saw him afterwards,” Van Noy said. “I saw Danny (Sorensen) and Taysom (Hill) during the preseason. That was cool. I talked to Taysom a lot. I didn’t see Jamaal (Williams), but I played against him when he was on the Packers. He’s like my little brother. It’s fun talking trash, poking him in the ear hole when he’s getting up from the pile or putting my finger up his nose.”
Van Noy saves his best antics for Warner in a linebacker-to-linebacker exchange.
“I love talking trash to Fred,” he said. “When he runs out on to the field, I’ll run out a little late and bump him as if to say, ‘Hey! Watch where you are going!’”
D’Angelo Mandell (Cowboys), Chris Brooks (Dolphins), Kaleb Hayes (Jaguars) and Harris LaChance (Colts) are among the undrafted players hoping to earn a roster spot during training camp. Their journey will be challenging, but it’s one that several Cougars have conquered.
To wit ...
Bart Oates earned a roster spot at center with the Giants in 1983 and went on to win three Super Bowl rings and play in five Pro Bowls. Chad Lewis, a tight end, fought his way onto the Eagles roster in 1997 and played nine seasons.
Defensive tackle Chris Hoke went undrafted in 2001 but won two Super Bowls with the Steelers. John Denney convinced the Dolphins he was a capable long snapper in 2005 and went on to play in 224 games, including two Pro Bowls.
Daniel Sorensen earned his way onto the Chiefs in 2014 as an undrafted free agent. Five years later he was a starting free safety in Kansas City’s Super Bowl LIV victory against San Francisco.
The Packers cut undrafted Taysom Hill from their training camp roster in 2017, but he was quickly scooped up by the Saints, where he is preparing for his seventh season. Hill has played quarterback, running back, tight end, kickoff returner and punt coverage.
“I think BYU players are some of the most prepared players to compete for a roster spot from a maturity aspect,” Nixon said. “A lot of our guys aren’t out there partying. They are focused on the job. I think the work ethic BYU instills gives these free agents another leg up.”
Before the newly released 2023 schedule can mean much to the handful of Cougars trying to earn their keep, they must first win a roster spot. Difficult for sure, but as Oates, Lewis, Hoke, Denney, Sorensen, Hill and many others have proven, anything is possible and, as the current roster of alums indicates, there is no better time to be a BYU football player in the NFL than right now.
“These guys that are in the league are making a mark. It’s exciting,” Bosco said. “We always want to see our guys be successful and do good things and they are doing it. They are starting and they are making an impact.”
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.