Kalani Sitake on depth chart changes (or not) at running back, offensive line and safety
Coach hints that former RB1 Aidan Robbins is less than 100% healthy and explains why freshman LJ Martin is atop depth chart
Kalani Sitake said in August that the Cougars’ depth chart would evolve week to week as the program got closer to its first Big 12 game, and on Monday the BYU football coach’s premonition played out again.
There are a few changes in the two-deep chart, most notably at the running back and safety positions.
“Well, I will say this about a lot of the players: A lot of them are going through some injury issues, which is making it hard for them to compete every week and be the starter. Whether you are banged up or not, we have to do the right thing, and that is play the guys that give us the best chance to succeed.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
Freshman LJ Martin is now RB1 after getting the start in last Saturday’s 38-31 win over Arkansas and rushing for two touchdowns, including a career-high 45-yarder in the second quarter. Opening-day starter Aidan Robbins and redshirt senior Deion Smith, a Colorado transfer, are listed as sharing the RB2 designation.
Redshirt sophomore walk-on Tanner Wall is now the starting free safety, replacing fifth-year senior Malik Moore in that spot. Moore, a three-year starter, is listed as the backup free safety with Chika Ebunoha and Preston Rex.
Both of BYU’s starting safeties, Wall and Ethan Slade, are walk-ons, after projected major contributors Micah Harper (knee) and Talan Alfrey (shoulder) suffered serious injuries in fall camp.
The elevation of Martin, the four-star recruit from El Paso, Texas, is not a surprise; offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told reporters last week that Martin would get the start against the Razorbacks. But Roderick also said that Robbins and Smith would both play. Smith got two carries for five yards and caught the 37-yard touchdown pass from Parker Kingston. Robbins did not get into the game, after having rushed only 10 times for 29 yards in the previous two games.
Sitake gave a lengthy, and somewhat vague, answer in Monday’s weekly press briefing when he was asked why Robbins — a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago at UNLV — did not have any carries and whether the redshirt junior would play Saturday against Kansas (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at Booth Memorial Stadium in Lawrence.
“Well, I will say this about a lot of the players: A lot of them are going through some injury issues which is making it hard for them to compete every week and be the starter,” Sitake said. “Whether you are banged up or not, we have to do the right thing, and that is play the guys that give us the best chance to succeed.”
Starting Martin was obviously the right call, as the 18-year-old gained 92 yards on 23 carries (77 net yards). Sitake said “a number” of players are banged up and not 100% but are still out there participating but might not be as good now as someone who is fully healthy.
“Aidan falls into that picture,” Sitake said. “It is a matter of him and others getting enough practice time, too. We put out the depth chart on Monday, but a lot happens in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practices where guys get banged up because we are going to be physical in practices, too. That’s what we do. We have to keep blocking, tackling and hitting.”
Regarding the shakeup at free safety, it could be seen coming because Utah State transfer Crew Wakley started in Moore’s place against the Hogs but sustained an injury making a tackle the second play of the game and wobbled off the field with the help of trainers, displaying concussion-like behavior.
On the fourth play, Moore took a bad angle and Arkansas’ AJ Green outran him for a 55-yard touchdown. Wall, a sophomore from Arlington, Virginia, played most of the rest of the game and finished with six tackles.
Sitake said Wakley “had an amazing week of practice,” along with Slade, Wall and Moore. He said Wakley is not out for the season, but is doubtful for Kansas.
“There is a lot of improvements to be made at every position, and safeties can improve as well, and I think Jay (Hill) has that position group under control,” Sitake said.
On the offensive line, Oklahoma State transfer Caleb Etienne remains the starter on the depth chart at right tackle, although he had trouble blocking Arkansas’ Trajan Jeffcoat and was spelled by Brayden Keim.
Asked whether Keim replacing Etienne for most of the second half was fatigue- or performance- or injury-related, Sitake said it was “a combination of all that.”
“We have the affordability now with guys that are banged up, that in the past we have had to play with guys that are banged up and say that is the best we got,” Sitake said. “Now we don’t have to do that. We have really good talent around us.”
Cougars on the air
at Kansas (3-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium
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The coach added that “no one had a bigger smile on his face after the game” than Etienne.
“That is the stuff that will help us go a long way,” Sitake said.
There are a few other subtle changes on the depth chart. All three receiver positions now have ‘or’ designations, and Eastern Michigan transfer Darius Lassiter is on the top line. It is a big game for Lassiter, because his brother, Kwinton, plays defensive back for Kansas.
Their father, the late Kwamie Lassiter, also played for the Jayhawks and was a star of Kansas’ win over BYU in the 1992 Aloha Bowl.
The Deseret News will have more on the Lassiters later this week.
Offensive lineman Tyler Little is the new backup at right guard, behind Connor Pay. He replaces starting center Paul Maile’s name there.