Even before the Big 12’s 2023 preseason football poll came out last week and the BYU Cougars were picked to finish 11th in the 14-team conference, head coach Kalani Sitake and his players weren’t accepting the low expectations.

“I think we improved quite a bit in our depth. I was really happy with the way the recruiting has gone. … I think every coach is going to say they are happy (in June), but looking at the roster, looking at the things that we have added, looking at how our team is working, man, I feel really good.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

They were expecting them, perhaps, but in no way were they fazed by them.

“I am not really worried about what everybody is predicting,” Sitake said at a football program-sponsored golf event on June 26. “It’s OK. Let’s fly under the radar and figure out what we can do to make some people wrong.

But proving them wrong is not our motivation,” he continued. “Our motivation is to prove ourselves right in how we feel and how we believe. But I have a really good feeling that we are in a good spot.”

Media representatives picked Texas to win the league in the Longhorns’ last season in the Big 12 before moving on to the SEC with Oklahoma, which is picked third. Only fellow newcomers Houston and Cincinnati, and West Virginia (which went 3-6 in the Big 12 last year) are picked to finish lower than BYU.

“What is the rate of success in predicting all of it?” Sitake asked rhetorically. “I will be sure to tell the team (that expectations are low). We are going to be excited about our opportunities. … I have been coaching for a long time now and I have been coaching here going into my eighth year, and I feel really good about this team, about our guys.”

One of those guys is starting quarterback Kedon Slovis, who knows a thing or two about expectations and the competition level in Power Five conferences after having played for USC of the Pac-12 and Pitt of the ACC before transferring to BYU for his final season of college football.

“You can play both sides of the card. Sometimes the high expectations are (not good). Like (Alabama coach) Nick Saban will call it rat poison. Some people like low expectations,” Slovis said. “At the end of the day, we have our own expectations of where we think we should be as a team. We just want to play consistently and the best football we can, day in day out, week in, week out. If we can do that, we are going to be happy with where we stand at the end of the year.”

At the same golf event in late June — after ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gave BYU, West Virginia and Kansas a zero percent chance of winning the Big 12 in 2023 — receiver Kody Epps and offensive lineman Connor Pay said they rarely pay any attention to preseason predictions.

“If you want me to keep it completely honest with you, man, I haven’t looked at any of that stuff,” said Epps, a rising sophomore (in eligibility) who briefly entered the transfer portal before deciding to return to BYU for his fourth year in the program. “We haven’t talked once about what games we are going to win, not going to win, all that. We talk about workouts, getting better, golf, things of that nature.”

Added Pay, who in April after BYU wrapped up spring practices said some of the players stopped believing in themselves in 2022 after four straight losses in October: “Nothing coming from the outside matters to us this year. Absolutely nothing.”

In a lot of ways, this BYU is entirely different than the 2022 team, with an (almost) new defensive coaching staff led by new defensive coordinator Jay Hill. Defensive schemes have undergone a major overhaul, as has BYU’s approach to strength and conditioning, as has been well-documented.

Throw in more than 20 additions from the transfer portal, more than 20 departures to other squads, a handful of medical retirements and the usual slew of returned missionaries re-entering the program, and some are projecting the final 2023 roster could include as many as 50 new faces.

Name tags might be needed when preseason training camp opens in early August.

“Building chemistry and camaraderie is going to be a big thing for this team, and I feel like we are heading in the right direction with that,” Slovis said. “We are excited for the opportunity to prove ourselves. We will look at predictions and all that stuff at the end of the year. We have a long ways to go, but like I said, I like the direction we are headed.”

Sitake and his staff have mostly been on vacation the past few weeks — interrupted for the head coach by Wednesday’s Big 12 football media day in Arlington, Texas — but felt good in late June about what they had accomplished in the offseason.

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“It has been a bunch of recruiting, and then just getting the roster in place,” Sitake said of the staff’s activity since mid-April. “I am happy with what the coordinators did in terms of getting the right guys here, and working with the right guys, going into the portal and making sure we get the right guys that fit.”

Sitake said the coordinators and assistant coaches gave feedback to returning players and let them know where they stood, or stand, in the program. 

“I think we improved quite a bit in our depth,” Sitake said. “I was really happy with the way the recruiting has gone. … I think every coach is going to say they are happy (in June), but looking at the roster, looking at the things that we have added, looking at how our team is working, man, I feel really good.”

Here’s a quick look at how the Cougars’ offense, defense and special teams will look in 2023, with the opener at Lavell Edwards Stadium against Sam Houston on Sept. 2 just seven weeks away from this Saturday away:

Offensive approach is working

With highly successful offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick again pulling the strings, BYU’s offensive schemes, formations and plays won’t change much, but the personnel certainly will.

Gone are stars such as Jaren Hall, Chris Brooks, Puka Nacua, Gunner Romney and Blake Freeland; In are Slovis, new running back Aidan Robbins of Louisville/UNLV, Paul Maile of Utah and right tackle Caleb Etienne, who has a lot of Big 12 familiarity because he started in 13 games for Oklahoma State last year.

“We have a long way to go. We have to get a lot better,” Roderick said after spring camp. “But we made some good progress, too.”

The Cougars averaged 426.3 yards per game last year, which ranked them No. 36 in the country in that category. Staying healthy will be an issue for the returning offensive weapons, as Epps and fellow receivers Chase Roberts and Keanu Hill missed time last year with injuries.

“Receiving corps is looking good, strong and healthy,” Epps said in June. “We are going to be just fine there.”

The Cougars snagged receivers Darius Lassiter (Eastern Michigan) and Keelan Marion (UConn) out of the transfer portal, shoring up a position that needed more depth and experience.

Other offensive newcomers include linemen Jake Eichorn (Weber State), Ian Fitzgerald (Missouri State) and Weylin Lapuaho (Utah State), causing Slovis to remark in June that the offensive line depth “is probably the best (offensive) line depth I have ever been around.”

Defense did a lot of retooling

The numbers don’t paint a pretty picture for BYU’s defense in 2022, as the Cougars finished the 8-5 campaign with arguably its worst stats in the Sitake era. BYU was No. 97 in scoring defense (29.46 points per game) and No. 94 in total defense, giving up 408.1 yards per game.

An overhaul was needed, and that’s what happened, as Sitake replaced longtime pal Ilaisa Tuiaki with Hill and Hill brought in his guys, veterans such as Justin Ena (linebackers), Sione Po’uha (defensive line) and Kelly Poppinga (edge rushers, special teams).

“It is almost a night-and-day difference,” said returning linebacker Ben Bywater of the defense’s new, aggressive style.

There were also personnel changes, as contributors such as George Udo (Cincinnati), Keenan Pili (Tennessee) and Gave Jeudy-Lally (Tennessee) hit the transfer portal and were replaced with the likes of linebackers AJ Vongphachanh (Utah State) and Harrison Taggart (Oregon), cornerback Eddie Heckard (Weber State) and Boise State edge rusher Isaiah Bagnah.

Hill recognized that the defense needed a talent upgrade, in addition to more work in the weight room. How his slew of changes will work remains to be seen.

“I think just this last year, everyone expected us to do so well, and we also had high expectations for ourselves,” said returning safety Malik Moore, a team leader. “And when it seemed like everything was out of reach, I just think some things just kinda got out of whack. It wasn’t the coaches’ fault. It was the players who were on the field.”

A powerful punter leads special teams

There’s a reason BYU will be the only school that brings its punter to the Big 12 football media days at AT&T Stadium this week. BYU punter Ryan Rehkow is very, very good.

And it doesn’t hurt that, because Rehkow is 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, he looks like a football player.

As Poppinga takes over BYU’s special teams, Rehkow will become a security blanket in 2023, quite possibly the Veradale, Washington, native’s last year in the program. 

The rest of the group has some question marks. BYU will look to replace all-time leading scorer Jake Oldroyd with either Justen Smith, Will Ferrin or Matthias Dunn at kicker.

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Good luck with that. Neither was impressive in spring camp, although Sitake refused to worry much about it when he was questioned about all the misses.

“I am not trying to look pretty in practice,” Sitake said.

Poppinga has said he wants some game-changers for his kick returners, but quite likely could use the same guys that Ed Lamb used last year: Hobbs Nyberg, Hinckley Ropati and Talmage Gunther, to name a few.

2022 record: 8-5 (4-2 home, 3-2 away, 1-1 neutral)

Local ties: 

  • LB Chaz Ah You (Westlake HS).
  • DE Tyler Batty (Payson HS).
  • DB Jacob Boren (Highland HS).: 
  • S Ty Burke (Syracuse HS).
  • QB Ryder Burton (Springville HS).
  • LB Ben Bywater (Olympus HS).
  • OL Kaden Chidester (Richfield HS).
  • CB Caleb Christensen (Sky View HS).
  • DT Jackson Cravens (Timpview HS).
  • DE Michael Daley (Lone Peak HS).
  • S Raider Damuni (Timpview HS).
  • OL Sam Dawe (Spanish Fork HS).
  • DT Wyatt Dawe (Pleasant Grove HS).
  • WR Devin Downing (American Fork HS).
  • K Matthias Dunn (Wasatch HS).
  • FB Mason Fakahua (Cedar City HS).
  • OL Peter Falaniko (Pine View HS).
  • K Will Ferrin (Davis HS).
  • LB Lucky Finau (Alta HS).
  • LB Isaiah Glasker (Bingham HS).
  • WR Talmage Gunther (Lone Peak HS).
  • QB Cole Hagen (Corner Canyon HS).
  • WR Kyson Hall (Maple Mountain HS).
  • LB Ammon Hannemann (Lone Peak HS).
  • RB Helu Nukuluve (Tooele HS).
  • WR Tanner Holden (American Fork HS).
  • RB Chase Hopkins (Olympus HS).
  • LB Fisher Jackson (Herriman HS).
  • LB Maika Kaufusi (Alta HS).
  • OL Brayden Keim (Alta HS).
  • WR Parker Kingston (Roy HS).
  • OL Weylin Lapuaho (Bingham HS).
  • DT Josh Larsen (Woods Cross HS).
  • LB Logan Lutui (Hunter HS).
  • DT Atunaisa Mahe (West Jordan HS).
  • OL Paul Maile (East HS).
  • OL Sonny Makasini (Timpview HS).
  • DE Blake Mangelson (Juan HS).
  • CB Marcus McKenzie (Pine View HS).
  • DL Bruce Mitchell (South Summit HS).
  • DE Aisea Moa (Weber HS).
  • WR Kade Moore (Lehi HS).
  • DL John Nelson (Salem Hills HS).
  • WR Hobbs Nyberg (Dixie HS).
  • TE Anthony Olsen (Olympus HS).
  • OL Trevin Ostler (Bountiful HS).
  • OL Connor Pay (Lone Peak HS).
  • WR Chase Roberts (American Fork HS).
  • DB Jakob Robinson (Orem HS).
  • DE Body Schoonover (American Fork HS).
  • DE Nuuletau Sellesin (Woods Cross HS).
  • DT Joshua Singh (Orem HS).
  • S Ethan Slade (Orem HS).
  • K Justen Smith (Brighton HS).
  • OL Kingsley Suamataia (Orem HS).
  • LB Max Tooley (Bountiful HS).
  • FB Masen Wake (Lone Peak HS).
  • S Crew Wakley (Jordan HS).

2023 schedule

Sept. 2 — Sam Houston.
Sept. 9 — Southern Utah.
Sept. 16 — at Arkansas.
Sept. 23 — at Kansas.
Sept. 29 — Cincinnati.
Oct. 14 — TCU.
Oct. 21 — Texas Tech.
Oct. 28 — at Texas.
Nov. 4 — at West Virginia.
Nov. 11 — Iowa State.
Nov. 18 — Oklahoma.
Nov. 25 — at Oklahoma State.

BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis runs the ball during the annual BYU Blue and White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU’s Kedon Slovis runs the ball during the annual Blue vs. White scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, March 31, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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