At the risk of being a bit hyperbolic, it is probably safe to say that BYU’s football program has never faced a more important preseason training camp than the one that begins this week in Provo.

“First and foremost, we gotta get better every day. I know that sounds so generic and boring, but that is the reality. We gotta find a way to get each guy better every day. We gotta be able to establish some depth at every position group. And that is going to be critical, because to find depth you gotta be able to get better, and stay healthy.” — BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill

The reasons are obvious, and have been bandied about for weeks, even months:

• It is the Cougars’ first season in the Big 12, where the level of competition — taken as a whole — will be unlike anything a BYU football team has ever faced.

• Coach Kalani Sitake and his staff have overhauled their roster, bringing in nearly 60 newcomers, including true freshmen, transfers from other programs, preferred walk-ons and returned missionaries assimilating back to the team.

• Sitake released several good friends on the defensive side of the ball and brought in former Weber State coach Jay Hill and other experienced defensive coaches who came with a hefty price tag. Immediate results are expected — and desperately needed.

• The Cougars aren’t just playing for themselves, as they were the last 12 seasons as an independent. The pressure is on in their three opening nonconference games, particularly on Sept. 16 at Arkansas. They are repping a conference now, for better or worse.

Camp begins Tuesday

Players reported to camp Monday, and the first practice will be held Tuesday. The opener is Sept. 2 at LaVell Edwards Stadium against Sam Houston and will be televised by Fox Sports 1 at 8:15 p.m.

“We’ve had a sense of urgency for almost two years (since BYU got a Big 12 invitation on Sept. 9, 2021),” Sitake said at Big 12 football media days two weeks ago. “Has it been heightened since last season ended? Sure. It is getting more and more real with each passing day.”

Sitake seemingly has the program on an upward trajectory — BYU has won 29 of its last 38 games — and he’s continually emphasized steady improvement, but 2023 preseason training camp is where it all has to come together if the Cougars hope to avoid their first losing season since the debacle that was 2017, Sitake’s second year at the helm. 

Storylines aplenty, as usual

So the heat is on, and we’re not just talking about 100-plus degree temperatures in Provo. The pressure-cooker that is Power Five football has arrived in Utah County. With Colorado’s move to the Big 12 in 2024 and speculation running rampant regarding the future of the Pac-12 and Big 12, the spotlight has rarely been brighter on big-time football in the West.

With the opener set for four weeks from Saturday, and the feeling that the Cougars absolutely cannot afford to lose any of their first two games if they hope to make it to a bowl game for the sixth straight year, here are five compelling storylines to keep an eye on as August unfolds:

Impact of the newcomers, especially QB Kedon Slovis

Before spring camp ended in the middle of April, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick made a point of emphasizing that there is no quarterback derby at BYU this year. This is USC and Pitt transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis’ team, and will be until the grad transfer either gets hurt or is so ineffective the coaches start prepping for 2024. That would be a disaster.

Slovis has repeatedly said that he appreciates the vote of confidence from Roderick, even if it was apparent from Day 1 that Slovis would be the man to replace new Minnesota Vikings backup Jaren Hall. This is Slovis’ team, and he knows it. More importantly, his teammates know it.

Slovis will get the bulk of the reps in training camp. That’s a no-brainer. The backup quarterback spot is still up for grabs, but the feeling here is that junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff moved into the lead the latter half of spring camp, when the first Jewish QB in BYU history overcame tonsil issues and took control of the second unit.

For Slovis, it has been everything he thought it would be. And he’s adjusted to Provo so well that he’s attending teammates’ Pro Am basketball league games a county away. That’s a guy who feels comfortable with everything.

“It has gone super well,” Slovis said at Big 12 media days. “Just being embraced by these guys has been awesome. These are some of best kids I have ever been around. They work hard. They are great teammates. They care about you. They are checking in on you. We are always doing stuff off the field.

“And not just that, the coaching staff has given me every opportunity I could have hoped for to lead and to perform and prove myself to these guys,” Slovis continued. “It has been everything I hoped to get out of this new situation.”

Slovis is one of more than 25 players in camp this week who began his college career somewhere else, and one of 16 transfers from the Football Bowl Subdivision. Sitake said he would hit the portal hard after the Cougars went 8-5 in 2022, and he’s delivered.

BYU’s transfer class is ranked No. 21 in the country by, but those guys will have to get up to speed quickly, particularly those who didn’t participate in spring camp. Among the most notable additions are former Louisville/UNLV running back Aidan Robbins, former Utah State linebacker AJ Vongphachanh and former Oklahoma State tackle Caleb Etienne, but the biggest add may turn out to be ex-Weber State cornerback Eddie Heckard, who shores up a secondary that will be tested time and again by the powerful offenses in the Big 12, if not sooner.

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. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Will Jay Hill’s defense find its footing?

Before he could rebuild BYU’s defense from a personnel standpoint, Hill knew he needed to surround himself with some of the best defensive coaches he could find, and he believes he’s done that in getting Sione Po’uha to come out of retirement to work with the defensive tackles and former BYU players Kelly Poppinga and Justin Ena to pitch in as well.

Hill said he looked at the personnel as a whole and knew the Cougars needed more depth at the defensive line positions, and some transfer linebackers to complement returners Max Tooley, Ben Bywater and Chaz Ah You. Getting the aforementioned Vongphachanh, a grad transfer from Utah State, was huge.

So are the additions of Boise State’s Jackson Cravens and Isaiah Bagnah.

A key question in fall camp will be how the new guys, combined with other returning players such as Micah Harper, Malik Moore and Atunaisa Mahe, adjust to Hill’s new schemes.

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“First and foremost, we gotta get better every day,” Hill told the KSL Sports Zone last week. “I know that sounds so generic and boring, but that is the reality. We gotta find a way to get each guy better every day. We gotta be able to establish some depth at every position group. And that is going to be critical, because to find depth you gotta be able to get better, and stay healthy.”

Along with the transfers already noted, BYU will be looking to see if any of the freshmen can contribute right away, freshmen such as Timpview High star Siale Esera and some highly recruited guys before church missions: John Henry Daley and Raider Damuni.

Some defensive transfers who joined after spring camp include Oregon transfer linebacker Harrison Taggart and Jayden Dunlap of Cerritos (California) College.

BYU defensive coordinator Jay Hill watches players during BYU spring camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility.
Jay Hill, BYU associate head coach, defensive coordinator and safeties coach, watches players practice during opening day of BYU spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo, on Monday, March 6, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Help wanted: Reliable kicker

Perhaps too much was made of this glaring deficiency in spring camp, as punter Ryan Rehkow told the Deseret News at Big 12 media days. Then again, anyone who witnessed what went on during camp, at least when the media was allowed to watch, probably can’t get it out of their heads.

The field goal kicking was that bad.

So a lot of attention will be paid to Boise State transfer Will Ferrin, returning part-time kicker Justen Smith and Matthias Dunn, a returned missionary who prepped at Heber City’s Wasatch High.

Who will emerge to replace Jake Oldroyd? Preseason training camp should tell the tale.

“We are going to train ugly,” Sitake said after spring camp, defending the process of putting kickers under duress and creating “stressful situations” that often make them look worse than they actually are. “So if it looks ugly in practice and then looks nice in the game, that is all I care about.”

Despite the protestations of Sitake and Rehkow, this threatens to be a pressing issue. Poor kicking almost cost the Cougars the Baylor game last year. What’s the over-under on number of games it costs BYU this season?

BYU kicker Justen Smith warms up before competing against Boise State during a game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

More than five OLs for the Big 12 fight

There has been some attrition, and the untimely death of Sione Veikoso in Hawaii last December, but offensive line still figures to be the deepest position for the Cougars in 2023 — on either side of the ball.

That means offensive line coach Darrell Funk will use the first three weeks of camp to sort it all out. He and Roderick have said they are comfortable with eight or nine guys who could start. Getting that number down to a starting five will be a key objective of camp.

This much is clear: Rising junior Kingsley Suamataia is BYU’s best player, and will step in at left tackle to replace Blake Freeland. Etienne played left tackle for Oklahoma State last year, but is moving to right tackle, almost assuredly.

Junior Connor Pay will start, probably at center, but possibly at guard. Then there’s Utah transfer Paul Maile, who didn’t participate in spring camp but is probably the guy at right guard. He can also play center.

“Yeah, we got a bunch of good players and then depth-wise and as a unit, probably the best line I have ever been around,” Slovis said on June 26. “I am excited to see how it comes together in fall camp. We still don’t know where some pieces will fall. 

“We got eight guys who could start at most programs in the country. So it is a good problem to have. We will let coach Funk and A-Rod kinda figure that out.”

BYU offensive lineman, Kingsley Suamataia, right, and other linemen trot back onto the field as the Cougars practice in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Cougs need to avoid injuries, but build depth

It’s the usual dance coaches go through in preseason training camp — get their players ready physically with plenty of tackling and contact stuff, but avoid injuries. That’s especially vital for BYU this year, as injuries have derailed promising seasons in the past.

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For instance, star tight end Matt Bushman suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in 2020 fall camp, albeit during a non-contact drill. His unavailability helped Isaac Rex’s progress, but one has to wonder what might have been against Coastal Carolina if Bushman had been available.

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“That is such a critical part of college football, is how do you get better and get out there and get them more physical and bang and do everything you need to do to get ready for the season, but stay healthy?” Hill told KSL Sports Zone. “… Kalani has done a phenomenal job this summer having our sports science people study those things and work with the guys with the goal of (avoiding) injuries as much as possible.“

Hill said at all levels of football, injuries are inevitable. He said ideally a defense needs seven capable defensive linemen, five linebackers, five cornerbacks and three safeties who can play at any given time.

“There are going to be injuries. At this level of college football, with us playing 10 straight Power Five opponents, you are going to have injuries,” Hill said. “Then you gotta have backups ready to go. I think we have done a good job trying to establish some depth in all those position groups at BYU, but it is still going to be a work in progress.”

BYU defenders chase Baylor Bears quarterback Blake Shapen as BYU and Baylor play at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU defensive members chase Baylor Bears quarterback Blake Shapen as BYU and Baylor play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. The two programs don’t play each other in 2023, but are now members of the same conference. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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