If the BYU football team’s first season in the Big 12 showed anything, it is that the Cougars don’t quite have the talent and depth needed to compete in that league on a week-to-week basis. 

The proof was in the pudding, as they say.

Coach Kalani Sitake’s eighth team went 2-7 in league play, and was not all that competitive in blowout losses to TCU, Texas, West Virginia and Iowa State. They did show some encouraging signs late, taking nationally ranked Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to the wire and nearly pulling off what would have been program-building upsets.

“We are going to be very selective with those remaining spots that we have We have a couple of offensive line spots we would still like to fill. We are adding a couple of guys midyear that are home from missions as well. … So we are not in a (panic), a desperate need. We are going to be really smart and patient with how we fill those spots.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick

So what does Sitake and his staff need from the transfer portal, in high school recruiting, and from recently returned missionaries to get the 2024 team better?

Clearly, much less uncertainty surrounds the makeup of the 2024 roster than the 2023 roster, which welcomed more than 60 new faces when all was said and done. It was the biggest one-year roster makeover in program history.

BYU lost more than 20 players to the transfer portal in 2023, and had added about that same number when training camp began last August.

This year will be quite different, it appears.

As of midday Tuesday, BYU had lost only a handful of players to the portal, most notably defensive ends Michael Daley (Rice) and John Henry Daley (Utah), receiver Dom Henry (Florida Atlantic) and punt returner Hobbs Nyberg, who has yet to announce his next destination.

Players who had eligibility remaining but have declared for the NFL draft include tight end Isaac Rex, running back Aidan Robbins, offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia and punter Ryan Rehkow. 

BYU signed a large high school and junior college class during December’s early signing period, some 28 prospects, at last count, so there are fewer spots available for transfer portal guys.

Speaking of the portal, quarterbacks Gerry Bohanon (Baylor/South Florida) and Treyson Bourguet (Western Michigan), linebacker Jack Kelly (Weber State) and punter Sam Vander Haar (Pitt) will become Cougars in 2024, although it is not entirely clear if the new QBs will be walk-ons or scholarship players.

By way of comparison, after the CFP national championship game last year (Jan. 9, 2023), BYU had 12 former players in the portal and nine commitments from the portal, most notably QB Kedon Slovis, RB Aidan Robbins and defenders Isaiah Bagnah and Jackson Cravens out of Boise State.

Bottom line is the 2024 roster will look more like the 2022 roster, when Sitake welcomed back 85% of his production from the previous season. The Cougars went 7-6 in 2022, rallying late after an October swoon to finish with a New Mexico Bowl win over SMU.

Would a similar record and outcome in 2024 satisfy an impatient fanbase?

Here’s a position-by-position look at where BYU needs to improve in 2024.

Quarterback competition is wide open

As soon as the transfer portal opened on Dec. 4, BYU coaches were actively pursuing a veteran quarterback, a sign that four-game starter Jake Retzlaff, the junior college transfer from Southern California, will have plenty of competition this spring and fall and isn’t the guaranteed starter in 2024, even as the incumbent.

With the additions of Bohanon and Bourguet, the QBs room is as crowded as ever, as those three join Cade Fennegan, Ryder Burton and walk-ons Cole Hagen and Micah Fe’a, who prepped at nearby Orem High.

Certainly, BYU needs better QB play this year if it hopes to make some noise in the Big 12 with the additions of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State.

Whether Retzlaff, Bohanon or someone else is the answer remains to be seen.

Robbins’ retreat leaves a hole at running back

Former BYU offensive lineman and ESPN college football analyst Trevor Matich went on “BYU Sports Nation” Monday and immediately mentioned the need for a big-time running back when he was asked about the Cougars’ biggest needs out of the transfer portal.

Robbins’ decision to leave for the NFL draft leaves a significant hole, especially after the Louisville and UNLV transfer came on strong during the second half of the season after a rib injury hampered and/or sidelined him the first half of the year. Colorado transfer Deion Smith, who never really got a chance to shine, is also moving on, having exhausted his eligibility.

Rising sophomore LJ Martin is likely RB1 when spring camp begins in early March, but the Cougars should still be out there searching for another ball carrier who can provide the El Paso, Texas, native some good competition.

The return of Miles Davis after he briefly entered the transfer portal in December should help, along with Hinckley Ropati if the late-2022 star recovers from an ACL injury. Utah State transfer Enoch Nawahine is also in the mix.

Offensive line under the gun

Sitake fired Darrell Funk and brought in TJ Woods to coach the offensive line in the weeks after the season-ending loss at Oklahoma State, and for good reason. BYU’s offensive line regressed in 2023, particularly in the run-blocking department.

Still, Suamataia and Maile will be missed; Suamataia should hear his name called on the second day of the NFL draft — rounds two and three.

Former walk-on and returned missionary Joe Brown has been awarded a scholarship, and should be able to compete right away for a starting spot with returning starters Connor Pay, Weylin Lapuaho, Caleb Etienne and Brayden Keim. 

Other possibilities are returners Kaden Chidester, Peter Falaniko, Jake Eichorn and RMs Sione Hingano and Ryker Keele.

But BYU needs more immediate help here out of the portal, just like last year when they got Maile, Lapuaho and Etienne, who might have revived his career by moving from tackle to guard for the last few games.

“We are going to be very selective with those remaining spots that we have,” Roderick said. “We have a couple of offensive line spots we would still like to fill. We are adding a couple of guys midyear that are home from missions as well. … So we are not in a (panic), a desperate need. We are going to be really smart and patient with how we fill those spots. But we do have a couple of O line spots (open), we would still like to build our depth there a little bit.”

The receivers are going to be all right

A year ago, there was a big need for upgrade at receiver, especially after Puka Nacua (ever heard of him?) and Gunner Romney moved on. The need isn’t that significant this year, as a solid group of pass-catchers return. But there’s always a need for speed at BYU, a guy who can take the top off defenses. Such a player isn’t in the current mix.

Chase Roberts led BYU with 42 catches for 573 yards last year, and is joined by Darius Lassiter, Kody Epps, Keelan Marion and Parker Kingston to give receivers coach Fesi Sitake a lot to work with in 2024. 

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Hampered by injuries for much of 2023, Keanu Hill is moving to tight end so he doesn’t have to fight weight gain as much, Roderick said in December.

A player to watch is Josiah “JoJo” Phillips, who showed some flashes as a freshman and has a lot of potential, coaches say. If there was a knock on the 2023 receivers, it was that most of them were subpar blockers, a strength of past BYU receivers such as Romney, Nacua and Neil Pau’u.

Sizing up the tight ends

Tight end Rex will be tough to replace; look for rising sophomore Jackson Bowers to get more playing time, along with Mata’ava Ta’ase, Ray Paulo and even freshman Ryner Swanson, who has already enrolled and will participate in spring camp.

“You can’t look better than Ryner does (physically) and we are really excited about him,” Roderick said. “He’s just got an awesome personality, brings a lot of energy to everything he does. We have really high hopes for him.”

As of Tuesday, BYU had yet to replace veteran tight ends coach Steve Clark, a loyal soldier and player favorite who was dismissed the same day as Funk.

Defensive line needs a boost

Losing John Henry Daley to the Utes really hurts, but not as badly as last year when Logan Fano jumped ship. That said, BYU still needs defensive line help, and quickly. The Cougars had the worst pass rush in the nation last year for a reason. They lacked a bona fide edge rusher, and were also soft up the middle.

Second-year interior defensive line coach Sione Po’uha and edge rush coach Kelly Poppinga have work to do.

Getting Tyler Batty and Isaiah Bagnah back is a step in the right direction — providing they improve, particularly Bagnah. The Boise State transfer was too often a non-factor in 2023.

In the blowout losses to TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State, the Cougars were manhandled in the trenches. Second-year DC Jay Hill knows he needs to fix that.

Bringing in junior college transfers Luke Toomalatai, Danny Saili and Sani Tuala will help. High schoolers Kini Fonohema, Ephraim Asiata and Dallin Johnson might be able to help sooner than later.

Of Asiata, Hill said: “He is a dynamic pass rusher. He is super physical. He is going to do great things early in his career here at BYU.”

But defensive line is still a position of need for BYU. Coaches should be scouring the portal for some difference-makers, which are hard to find at this position, obviously.

“We felt like we needed to beef up the interior part of the defensive front,” Hill said on Signing Day a month ago. “We did that.”

Linebackers shouldn’t be a liability

With Ben Bywater saying he will return after missing the last half of the season with a shoulder injury, BYU’s linebackers should be fine as constituted. Blossoming star Siale Esera, Oregon transfer Harrison Taggart and converted safety Isaiah Glasker form a solid unit.

Maika and Ace Kaufusi are also ready to contribute, and Weber State transfer Jack Kelly, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound tackling machine from Kearns, will follow in the footsteps of former Wildcat Eddie Heckard and give the Cougars a playmaker on defense that they desperately need.

Secondary should be solid, barring injury

The aforementioned Heckard, and sidekick Kamden Garrett, will be hard to replace at the cornerback positions. However, juco transfer Jayden Dunlap should be able to join Jakob Robinson to give coach Jernaro Gilford another solid group of starting corners.

Mory Bamba and gunner supreme Marcus McKenzie are waiting in the wings for more playing time, when healthy. High school recruits Trey Alexander and Jonathan Kabeya appear capable of playing right away.

“I believe (Alexander) has got a chance to be one of the best (corners) I’ve coached,” Hill said. “He’s got speed, he’s got size. We beat multiple ACC schools for him, and he had an SEC offer as well.”

At safety, the Cougars have some talent and depth, particularly if Micah Harper and Talan Alfrey return from major injuries. Alfrey did return late in the season, and helped immediately. Walk-ons Ethan Slade and Crew Wakley and converted receiver Preston Rex add depth and experience as well.

It will be interesting to see if four-star safety Faletau Satuala, the prep phenom from Bountiful who committed last week at the Army All-America game, can get on the field in his first year. He’s certainly got the size and skill to play early.

“We are super excited about the future of these recruits and where our defense is headed,” Hill said.