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BYU football: 5 storylines to follow during Cougars' fall camp

Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) runs by McNeese State Cowboys defensive back Darion Dunn (1) in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) runs by McNeese State Cowboys defensive back Darion Dunn (1) in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU rebounded from a disastrous 4-9 season in 2017 to post a 7-6 record and return to a bowl game.

The Cougars, who open fall camp Wednesday, are looking to take another step forward in 2019.

With a more of an established offensive identity, the emergence of dual-threat quarterback Zach Wilson, and a lot of returning talent on defense, the program is brimming with confidence.

“There’s a difference sense this year from our players. They’re anxious to get to the season,” said coach Kalani Sitake, who’s entering his fourth season at the helm. “Our No. 1 goal is to win games.”

In Year Two under offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, there are high expectations for the offense.

“The real harm in what I might do as a coach isn’t setting the bar too high, but maybe setting the bar too low,” Grimes said. “If I set the bar high, they’ll strive to meet that expectation.”

Wilson is optimistic about what the offense can achieve.

“Shoot, I expect us to score every drive. This sounds stupid to say, but I don’t think any defense should be able to stop us. BYU’s offense hasn’t been as great as it should have been the last couple of years,” he said. “But honestly I can say, we’ve got the personnel, we’ve got the coaches and we’ve got the scheme. Guys have the heart to get it done. I’m just excited for this year because everyone wants to come together. It’s just a different mentality than last year. We started showing things at the end of the year and I think that’s what is making people want to really invest more time now because they really believe that we can be good.”

As usual, BYU, an independent program, will be tested early on. After the much-anticipated season-opener against arch-rival Utah on Aug. 29 at LaVell Edwards Stadium, the Cougars visit Tennessee, then host USC and Washington. BYU will also take on Toledo, South Florida, Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State.

If the Cougars become bowl-eligible, they will likely play in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24.

“It will be interesting,” said athletic director Tom Holmoe. “Who wouldn’t want to be in Hawaii around Christmastime?”

Here are five compelling storylines going into fall camp:

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) throws in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. BYU won 30-3.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) throws in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. BYU won 30-3.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Wilson's way

Wilson, a sophomore, is the undisputed starter, though he is coming off major offseason shoulder surgery on his throwing arm.

Though he didn’t start throwing again until June, he’s been counting on returning to full strength by the time fall camp opens.

“I expect myself to come back better than I was last year,” said Wilson, who started seven games as a true freshman last season, completing 120 of 182 passes for 1,578 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. “The recovery’s been good and I’m right on schedule of where I’m supposed to be. I’m expected to be 100 percent.”

Freshman Jaren Hall will be Wilson’s backup. The quarterbacks will be protected by an experienced offensive line.

Grimes is expecting Wilson and the offense to make significant strides this season.

“We have a lot of experience coming back from a group that performed well at times and at other times, not well enough," he said. "I think we’re still a group that has a lot to prove. Last year we showed two things — we can play with anybody when we play well and we showed during the latter half of the year that we’re capable of much more. Once we made the switch with Zach and made a bit of a change with our style, our numbers increased by a little more than 10 points per game and 70 yards per game. I’m looking forward to another jump in that same regard. I think our overall numbers should improve."

Running back by committee?

Six months ago, things didn’t look too promising for BYU at the running back position, as the Cougars were losing Squally Canada, Matt Hadley and Riley Burt.

But things look a lot different now. In addition to the return of Lopini Katoa, BYU signed a pair of graduate transfers — Emmanuel Esukpa (Rice) and Ty’Son Williams (South Carolina).

The Cougars have additional depth in the backfield with Kavika Fonua, Tyler Allgeier, Sione Finau and Morgan Pyper.

Katoa led the team in rushing last season (76 carries, 423 yards, eight touchdowns). Esukpa and Williams have experience but have been slowed down by injuries during their careers.

Will one of these players emerge as an every-down, featured back? Or will this position be serviced by committee?

"We'll work with all of them and see how it all goes throughout practices and workouts," said running backs coach AJ Steward. "I'm certainly excited about all of them and feel we have a group of guys who are talented and mature who will be able to form a productive unit for us. We're all excited to get this thing going."

Tight ends have firepower; can they stay healthy?

Brigham Young Cougars tight end Matt Bushman (89) celebrates his touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.
Brigham Young Cougars tight end Matt Bushman (89) celebrates his touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The tight end position is one position that is expected to be a strength because of the return of Matt Bushman and Moroni Laulu-Pututau. But will they be healthy?

While Bushman is coming off off-season shoulder surgery, Laulu-Pututau is battling back from a season-ending knee injury last year at Washington.

“My goal is, fall camp I want to be ready,” Laulu-Pututau has said. “I feel ahead of schedule. I’m staying optimistic. I feel good about it.”

Laulu-Pututau missed all of the 2017 season due to a season-ending Lisfranc (foot) injury.

Last October, he underwent a groundbreaking ACL surgery a couple of weeks after his injury that is projected to return injured athletes to the field 40 percent faster than traditional surgery.

Bushman, a 2017 Freshman All-American, led the Cougars with 29 catches for 511 yards. He ranked No. 1 among FBS tight ends with 17.6 yards per catch and he was the first BYU tight end to record back-to-back 500-yard seasons since Dennis Pitta in 2008-09.

Others expected to contribute at tight end include Nate Heaps, Hank Tuipulotu, Darius McFarland and Kyle Griffitts.

The key is for the tight ends to avoid injuries.

“I’m really excited about this group, but we’ve got to put them in bubble wrap,” tight ends coach Steve Clark said. “If we stay healthy, it’s a great tight end corps. They’re so good. It’s the way it is. It’s football. You have to go to the next guy.”

Replacing Takitaki

A year ago, Sione Takitaki was the heart of the BYU defense. Coaches moved him around on the field before putting him to middle linebacker, where he shined.

But with Takitaki having moved on to the NFL, the Cougars are still trying to figure out how to maximize their talent at linebacker.

Several linebackers will compete during fall camp — Zayne Anderson (a senior who missed most of last season due to injury), Isaiah Kaufusi, Jackson Kaufusi, Max Tooley, Chaz Ah You, Alex Miskela, Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili and Matthew Criddle.

“There are so many young guys that are promising and have potential,” said linebackers coach Ed Lamb. “Some will fit into the two-deep and others won’t.”

Lamb is looking to Anderson to provide leadership and experience to the linebackers.

“The biggest thing for him is always he wants to continue to grow and put on the weight that he feels like is necessary to be at his best,” he said last spring. “Sometimes that’s the biggest frustration with surgeries, just being able to push those weights hard enough to really gain the kind of weight that guys want to gain. As far as his injury, I think that’s pretty much behind him. He’s just trying to get his training back to full speed.”

Brigham Young Cougars place kicker Skyler Southam hits a field goal during NCAA football in Boise on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Below is Boise State Broncos cornerback Avery Williams.
Brigham Young Cougars place kicker Skyler Southam hits a field goal during NCAA football in Boise on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Below is Boise State Broncos cornerback Avery Williams.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Placekicking competition

BYU is blessed to have a pair of placekickers that have booted pressure-packed, game-winning field goals.

Jake Oldroyd lifted the Cougars to a victory over Arizona in Sitake’s debut game in 2016 as he nailed the game-winner in the waning seconds before suffering an injury, then going on a mission.

Skyler Southam, who had returned home from a mission, drilled a 45-yarder that defeated No. 6 Wisconsin last fall. Southam made 11 of 16 field goals, including a career-long of 47 yards, and he hit 42 of 44 PATs in 2019.

Now, Southam and Oldroyd are competing for the starting placekicking job. It’s a battle that started in the spring and will continue into fall camp.

"Those two guys are true professionals," Lamb said. "They both pour everything into their craft. They work like crazy and so far they've been a strength for one another, and hopefully that continues."

Tyler Allgeier