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Cougar Insiders: X-factors, concerns and why BYU's opener against Utah is oh-so important (podcast)

BYU coach Kalani Sitake explodes from the sidelines as the Wisconsin Badgers missed a late field goal giving the Cougars the victory at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake explodes from the sidelines as the Wisconsin Badgers missed a late field goal giving the Cougars the victory at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

With fall camp opening Wednesday for the BYU football team, Cougar Insiders Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney break down a few of the more intriguing storylines surrounding this year’s squad. What X-factors could elevate the team? What are the greatest areas of concern? And what about that opener against the Utes? How big is that game — for both teams? That and more on this special fall camp preview episode.

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Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Dick Harmon: Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. In this edition, we're going to be talking to the most important things as camp opens. We're going to single out some of the most important players. Who's the X-factor? Who's going to be the biggest surprise? What are some of the biggest keys to this schedule? And what about this BYU-Utah game in the opener. Who's gonna win? We'll break it down in this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast.

Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News. Good to be back along with beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're talking BYU sports. Guys, camp starts this week, starts on Wednesday. BYU has got a tremendous challenge ahead of them. Let's talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of this football season. As camp begins, if you had to pick one thing the Cougars must do well to be successful what would it be? Now you guys get to pick one thing but I'm going to throw out a whole bunch right now. What do they need to do well? Coach better, finish games better, like at Boise State. Execute better, beat Utah better, or at least at all? How about just avoiding injuries, because it devastated them in the Utah game and right before. And then the use of personnel.

If you were to list one thing, Jeff Call, that they've got to do better this year, what would it be?

Jeff Call: Well, I think always, when you're talking about BYU football, it always goes back to quarterback play. They've got to have production at that position. Leadership at that position. Moxie at that position. You know, it bears out that when they've got solid quarterback play that they're going to be pretty good. And in conjunction with that, I would say it's not all the quarterback, of course, but they've got to find the playmakers. And we know that BYU does have some playmakers but there's some questions. You look at some of the playmakers they're counting on and they're coming off injuries. You got Matt Bushman, you got Aleva Hifo, you got Moroni Laulu-Pututau. I mean, these are guys that are certainly proven but we haven't seen them play for quite a while. We don't know exactly how, you know, when they start fall camp on Wednesday, what condition they're going to be in. Zach Wilson, as well, for that matter, with his surgically repaired shoulder. So here we go. We're just, you know, we're starting this new season. And there's these question marks already about what are these guys going to look like? Are they ready to go? Are they going to kind of ease into it? Are they ready right now? We just don't know.

DH: I totally agree with you on that. Your No. 1 thing and the thing we're asking to do is to give one thing and that's the quarterback play. Without quarterback play at BYU they're very average and they have been for a long, long time. Brandon Gurney, one thing.

Brandon Gurney: I'm going to say a pass rush. It's one thing that's been lacking with BYU teams in recent years and it's something that needs to come about. When you look at the 4-3 defense that's being instituted, you got to have good pass rushers, you got to have really good line play. Zac Dawe appears to be a guy to keep your eye on, a guy that can do it. I'd like to see BYU have at least two really productive edge pass rushers. But just the ability to get to a quarterback with a four-man rush, I think could be the next step this defense has to take. Because you look at the position groups, it looks to be a solid defense but I'm not convinced of the pass rush, the ability to just get to the quarterback and disrupt things on a down to down basis. I think it was a problem last year, I think it's been a problem for several years, and we'll see if that's fixed this year.

DH: You know, that leads us in to the next question and that is what is one big area of concern? And you know, they lose Corbin Kaufusi and Sione Takitaki, two very talented pass rushers and pressure givers and playmakers on the defensive line. Middle linebacker is going to be a real area of concern. I don't know if it's an area of concern to me, but I think that the offensive line must be improved. Their experienced. They're big, they're strong. They're well coached, I believe. But the offensive line, I don't think it's an area of concern, but it has to be a strength of this team. Jeff Call, what's your concern?

JC: I'd have to say depth. I think depth has improved over the course of the last few years, but it's still a question mark in my mind because once injuries hit, and we've seen so many injuries on both sides of the ball with BYU. Do they have the depth that can keep up with the kind of schedule that they have?

DH: I'd agree with you. Look at that Utah game. BYU was ahead what, 27-7 wasn't it? Who are the guys that went down? You had Isaiah Kaufusi, Corbin Kaufusi was playing injured and finally he couldn't go and then Matt Hadley went down and he was the fourth-string running back.

JC: And he was the one guy that was gaining yards against that Ute defense.

DH: They didn't have a lot of answers after that and they played conservative and it caught up with them. Brandon Gurney, your big area of concern with this football team, other than what you just mentioned — pressure, pressure, pressure.

BG: I wanted to say punter but I'm not going to just because I don't want to talk about the punter situation. But seriously, who is punting the football? To me that's a massive concern, probably underrated concern. But I'm gonna go wide receiver. Just look at that first game. We know what Utah's going to do. We know they're going to be very physical with the wideouts, they have two very good cornerbacks coming back, can BYU win individual battles on the outside in that first game, which is massively important against Utah? I mean, we state it every year but my goodness, is that a huge game. It's just going to set the tone for a lot of things. And can BYU win outside battles against the University of Utah? They're going to single cover these guys, none of these guys warrant a double-team as of now. It'd be great if Utah had to make an adjustment to shade one of the guys, but who is that guy? Gunner Romney would be the obvious choice, but we haven't seen it. So you want to see that develop where, man these guys can win some battles on the outside.

DH: That brings us to the next question, what is the biggest X-factor? Position, person or whatever? And you mentioned that battle going on with Utah with the wide receivers, but I would answer that by the X-factor with BYU is the tight ends. Because if you match up with a team like Utah, which can shut down your receivers, hold them, grab them, knock them off the routes and that, you've got to come up with another answer. One of those answers is a running attack to make them pay, and another one is these tight ends have got to be big-time playmakers. Matt Bushman, Moroni Laulu-Pututau, and some of the other young ones have to come out and take mismatches with their size against safeties and make them pay. You look back at the big BYU games with Utah that have come up with wins. And the last couple of them you look at that last game in overtime here at BYU's stadium, you had Dennis Pitta and Andrew George caught that touchdown pass against one of their best linebackers, took it to the house in overtime. You go back to Johnny Harline and John Beck. I mean it's been the tight ends that have made them pay for the coverage that they have. So I say the biggest X-factor, if the quarterback's OK, is going to be the tight end play because they have to be executing big play personnel. Jeff Call, your X-factor?

JC: Well I'd say, you know these are two guys we've talked a lot about but haven't seen in a BYU uniform, but the running backs. Ty'Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa. I mean those guys look the part of running backs that can make an impact. They've been here for a while in Provo working out and getting to know the guys in the offense, everything like that. And I think those guys, along with Lopini Katoa and some other running backs, I mean, they've got a lot of depth, they've got a lot of options in the backfield. And if we're talking about Utah, I mean, they're going to have to run the ball against Utah, they're gonna have to do that. And I think there's some hope that some combination of these guys will be able to be successful on the ground.

DH: Brandon, your X-factor as far as this goes.

BG: I've covered the program since 2003. And I don't think I've ever mentioned this group as an X-factor, maybe an underrated group that people run. I really like the cornerbacks. I think this is a really good group of cornerbacks can that can make a lot of waves. I think D'Angelo Mandell is probably the lead guy in this group. You saw a really good close to the season from him last year. I think he's just going to continue upon that point. Another guy I really like is Isaiah Herron, a guy that was showing really well, until he got hurt and really wasn't able to play through throughout much of the year. I think he has a lot of potential. And Dimitri Gallow, the JC guy. How often is it that BYU brings in a JC guy and it's just like oh, that's gravy. They don't really need that guy. Never. But but this guy, I mean, Ed Lamb gave a great review of this guy. And Eric Ellison. There's some question whether he's going to be able to join immediately, but Dimitri Gallow seems to be ready to go. I really like the cornerbacks. And I think a really important sign for this defense going forward is Dayan Ghanwoloku going to play? I think it's going to be a really positive sign if he's playing safety, and we see him playing safety for the majority of the time. That's going to indicate to me that the cornerbacks really are stepping up and getting it done, where they don't need him to move, where Dayan can play where they believe he will translate best to the next level, which is at safety.

DH: He is kind of a journeyman of all trades. He's the best tackler probably, best cover guy, probably best guy with the ball in the air and making an interception. We've seen him do that time and time again. So I agree with that.

What other players are going to be key? Let me introduce this question first of all and throw it to you, Brandon Gurney. We talk about other players, and Jeff brought this up. But I think it was last spring when they were recruiting these senior transfers. I think that you made a mention in cyberspace, you know, it's gonna be hard to get them in, this is going to be a real challenge for them. For a myriad of reasons BYU has been reluctant to admit certain type of athletes into their program, and a one-year type, come and go in their graduate programs. You've got a lot of academic types that are saying no, we're not going to explode up our percentages and our things to let a guy in for just one semester to play football. So you were right in saying that, but what happened is they got not only one from South Carolina, but they got another guy from Rice University and both of them look to be pretty well legit. I would say that other players that are important to what happens is really the turn of this thing in admissions to let these guys in. That to me is a big milestone in the battle that BYU is fighting, Kalani and his staff is fighting, and we can't let that just go without mentioning. That's significant that these two guys came in at a position that they were kind of devastated at.

BG: Yeah, absolutely. And you look at Ty'Son Williams' film. How can you not be excited about that? Not a lot of film but you look at his skill set and what he's able to do. It's an exciting thing. And I think the guy that everyone might be overlooking is Lopini Katoa. He's still there. He's only a sophomore. He's making that jump. He's a guy that proved really effective when he was in there last year. He's going to get better. And I thought an interesting comment from AJ Steward, the running backs coach, was he believes that because of Ty'Son Williams and Emannuel Esukpa pushing Lopini, It's going to push Lopini to have his best season yet, where he's ready to break out.

DH: He's probably got a little bit more pop than those other guys. They're not bad, and they're pretty quick, and they're strong, but he's got a little bit more agility with his hips and the steps. Jeff Call, your other players that are important and can really contribute big time.

JC: Well, this won't be a surprise, but Khyiris Tonga. I mean, this guy has been in the program for a few years, and we've seen kind of ebbs and flows with his game. I think now he's at a point where he's really gonna make a huge impact. I mean, this is definitely an NFL-caliber guy. And now this is his chance and his year to really show that, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he does this year. I mean, he's got quickness and strength, for his size, I mean, I think he moves really well and has a really good chance of making an impact. And we're going to be seeing that. I think game 1 is going to show what he can do against Utah. Utah's offensive line. I think that's not one of Utah strengths and I'm going to be curious to see how he fares against that O-line.

DH: Let's turn to breaking down this schedule, which is formidable in September. Maybe the toughest that I can remember in 43, 44 years of covering BYU football. You remember back when Gary Crowton took on Southern Cal and they played here in Provo, and they had a certain running back that was awful good. That was a tough, tough schedule. And I think they won only four games that year but this schedule is very formidable. Let's just break it down starting off with Utah, Jeff Call.

JC: Wow. Well, I mean, we've never seen this before. BYU and Utah starting off the season against each other. It's a completely new dynamic. And there's so much riding on that game. I mean for both teams. Utah's the favorite to win the Pac-12, they're going to be nationally ranked going to the season. You know Utah obviously wants to take that game as a springboard for the rest of their season. And for BYU, they've got the eight-game losing streak. BYU needs a win against Utah, from a fan standpoint, from the program standpoint, I mean it has been such a monkey on their back for so long they need to win that. And I think that game is going to have some sort of carryover effect one way or another to those next three, I think.

DH: I think you're right. Let's get your take on this Brandon Gurney. Usually Utah's opened up against a divisional or a foe they can kind of take apart a little bit as they get their feet underneath them. Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, Montana, one of the Montanas, Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern, whatever. But that's usually been the form that they've taken on, not one of their rivals in an opener. And that makes an interesting stage for that first game.

BG: There's a lot of interesting things in play going into this game. I think first and foremost, if you buy the narrative that Utah was sleeping on BYU last year, which there's justification to believe that. Of course the Utah media and fans won't want to believe that but um, they're not going to be sleeping on this one. No. But also, with this being Andy Ludwig's first game as an offensive coordinator, when have you seen a new offensive coordinator with an offense just hit the ground running? Not very often. And I think BYU has a good defense. So I think there's a lot of question marks with Utah's team. I mean, all we've heard is just oh Utah, man, they're ready to take the next level and all that. They lost some pretty good players off that team last year. And obviously they return a lot of guys, they're going to be formidable. I'm not saying that at all. But I think there's a lot of interesting things in play. And one thing we do know about that game is it never goes like anyone anticipates. But as far as these first four games of the year, I think the real interesting dynamic is that three of them are at home. And the inclination is yeah, that's going to help. But BYU hasn't been really good at home in recent years. So you want to see BYU use that to its advantage, where that is an advantage playing these three teams at home — USC, Utah and Washington — where that can be something that's going to give them an advantage. And we'll see if that comes to pass.

DH: They certainly do. Let's lump the rest of September together. Jeff Call, you and I will be going to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, the heart of Southeast Conference territory, a team that has struggled at times but has really, I think, come on and will be a tremendous challenge for BYU to go on the road and win there after Utah. Win or lose. I think if BYU beats Utah, coming off a high, that could be a problem. And if they lose to Utah and is down and dragging, that can be a problem. So Tennessee is going to be a big problem for BYU, no matter how you paint it.

JC: Yeah, I mean, Tennessee hasn't been the Tennessee they were like in the '90s and '80s. But they've got talent. They've got tons of talent. A Southeast Conference team, obviously. And yeah, that's going to be a formidable experience playing against — what does that stadium seat, 107,000 or something thousand? Just orange everywhere. You know, it's going to be quite an experience. And that's why we look at that game, you know, you can't just look at that game separately, you got to look at the context of the Utah game and who knows how that's gonna play out.

DH: Bubbas and the Maryanns in cut-off jeans in the parking lot. The next week BYU hosts Southern Cal. Let's hit these two at the same time. Southern Cal and Washington. Southern Cal maybe not what they've been in the past, but still it's Southern Cal. They get some of the best talent in the country. They just suck the life out of recruiting in the West Coast. And they've done that, they've continued to do that, they have done that, they've taken BYU, LDS, Mormon kids, they've taken whoever they want. When they want them they can usually get them. I don't know Brandon Gurney, this stretch here with Washington and Southern Cal is very interesting.

BG: Very interesting. Washington lost a lot as well, but you look at a team. BYU didn't even look like it belonged on the same field as Washington, it was just an embarrassing loss. Let's be honest, they were never in that game. It was brutal. It was absolutely brutal and just prognosticating that BYU is going to be able to turn it around so much in a degree where they can actually win the game might be a hard thing to come by. Washington has a lot of guys to replace but one thing they don't have to replace is an offensive line and that's absolutely going to be a strength for Washington. And I don't know, that's going to be a tough haul and it's so interesting to me when you look at these first four games. I think the most likely win is USC. Really? Is that how far USC has fallen? I mean, would you guys disagree with that? Those first four games USC looks like the most likely win, that's where I'm at. And where USC is at is just amazing to me. With the talent they're able to get and to be where USC is at, but it's also kind of scary because they still have that talent. I mean, they can get it together. So just a fascinating first four games.

DH: Then you know, Jeff Call, they hit another stretch in October that really is interesting because Toledo is a team that they could lose to very easily on the road, and then you got to go up to Logan, you got to play Utah State, a team that just kind of kicked your butt. And then you play Boise State, a team you haven't had much success with. You know, I'm getting this out of order. It's Toledo. And then it's South Florida. That one is probably doable. Still, South Florida is far better than a lot of people realize.

JC: And BYU has never won a game in the state of Florida, over 40 whatever years it's been. I mean, that's just kind of how it is. I remember the last regular-season game in Florida was Central Florida and they weren't the same team they've been the last couple years, but you know that went overtime, they ended up losing that game, and so I don't know there's something about traveling that far and being in that environment that kind drains you. It's been proven that BYU has struggled in that way. So I look at that South Florida game as another very difficult game, especially when you factor in the fact that those are back to back, even though there's a bye week in-between. That's a rough stretch as well. A lot of travel.

DH: Brandon, BYU fans want schedules, they know the independent thing is tough. They don't have league opponents to look forward to, but this is a schedule that BYU fans should get their teeth into and really be engaged in, especially if they can pull off a few wins. And October is so important because this is a stretch here that there are a lot of 50/50 games. I would say September's 40/60. They're going to be underdogs in most all of those games. The next month is 50/50, and those haven't been easy, and a couple of them on the road, that's not going to be easy. But this is a schedule that I think people want to pay for.

BG: It's definitely one of the better schedules BYU has had with independence. Dare I say the best schedule? I think with just coupling name opponents, with what's doable, with what you're bringing at home, I think this might be the best schedule BYU has had in independence. I think you can make that argument. My biggest qualm, and it's my biggest qualm most years, is the November schedule. I like a season narrative, I like building up to big opponents. But who are you building up to? Liberty, UMass, yeah. You know? I mean at least you have San Diego State at the back end. That could generate some excitement just because of the past rivalry factor. I think San Diego State has the ability to put forth a pretty decent team, I haven't really studied them that much this year, but to me that's kind of the clunker. Walking into the bowl game, finishing out November against those guys. You just wish it could be better.

DH: It is a little bit at anticlimactic but this is front-loaded. This is where the stretch is and as an independent that's who you play when you can play them, and November is what it is. And it's been that way for a long time.

JC: Yeah, that's just that's kind of how it is with independence.

BG: It wasn't last year. But that was an anomoly.

JC: That was an aberration. But you know, it's one of those things where — and Brandon brought this up. It's so weird how BYU has struggled at home. I don't know how they fix that. But now's the time to get that fixed. And the other thing is, I can't remember what exactly the record is, but Kalani's record against the so called the rivals Utah, Utah State, Boise State has not been very good. It's time to turn that around. Kalani has got to get that figured out. A win over Utah, a win over Boise, a win over Utah State would mean a lot to this program.

DH: There's a lot of things in the schedule that means a lot to a lot of people, a lot of fans, and the whole program. And it starts off, we're getting back to it, that Utah game. This is an important game for BYU. And it comes at a time that Utah's picked to win the Pac-12, if you can believe that. They are picked to be the winner and be in the Rose Bowl and perhaps be in a national playoff. So it comes at a time that BYU's need is great. And Utah's prediction is that they are going to be very, very good. So I don't know, how much should you put on this first game? And if they lose the game, Jeff Call, is all for naught. And then you just struggle in September and drag around?

JC: It's not all for naught. But I think you can't underestimate how important this game is for BYU. And when we were here at media day in June, I mean, no one was shy about talking about it. I mean, everyone, whether they were asked about it or whatever, somehow Utah came up and it's a game they've been pointing to. I think after that you know, tremendous performance for three quarters against Utah up at Rice-Eccles and then to collapse completely. I think from that moment on it's been on the forefront of everyone's mind, players and coaches. And they want to prove that they can beat Utah. This streak or whatever, you know, they don't want to own that streak because a lot of those games didn't involve them but, that's what they're faced with. And they just want to end it, end that discussion and turn things around. And again, yeah, imagine what that would mean for the fan base, for the coaching staff, for everybody if BYU could pull off that win.

DH: Brandon Gurney, it does mean a lot to BYU fans, and they're tired of losing to Utah. You take out a couple of blowouts here and there, the average win by Utah's been four points, I think, and BYU's had a chance in at least most of these games to win it on the last possession or the last play and they haven't been able to do that. You can call that luck, you can call it bad luck, bounce of the ball or whatever. But there has been something missing from BYU to finish these games and to walk off the field as a victor. Do they have it now?

BG: That's been the most amazing thing about the games is eight in a row, but BYU had a very good chance to win just about all of them. You got to make that next step. And I think it all has to do with playmaking ability. I think that's a huge thing that BYU has lacked in these final moments of games is just a guy that just can make plays where you can out-scheme an opponent. You look at Taysom Hill, everyone knew Taysom Hill was going where he was. You need out-scheme them, you need guys that just step up in key situations. An Austin Collie, a guy like that, where it's just like I can make a play in this critical situation. I think that's been the main thing lacking with the BYU teams and why they haven't been able to do it against Utah.

DH: Really, really early. We haven't seen them practice. We don't know how healthy the quarterback Zach Wilson is. This is really, really early. But this is the first podcast and this is what we do. Let's talk about what potential wins BYU could have the season, the number. Let's go Jeff Call.

JC: I think realistically seven, possibly eight. That's kind of what I'm looking at.

BG: Seven, 7-5 seems right. I think BYU could have a 6-6 year and still prove to have the best team it's had in independence with with this schedule. That's kind of the frustrating thing with the back end, that BYU could be a 6-6 team, go to that Hawaii bowl game and still have a really good team that's not really able to prove itself at the end of the year. Which I think is a frustrating thing. But but I do believe that this is going to be the best BYU team we've seen for a while. But I also believe that 6-6 is a realistic scenario. I trend toward 7-5 though, it feels like a 7-5 year.

DH: I would agree with both of you. I think 7-5 is reasonable. I can see a pathway that they could get eight wins and maybe get a little bit of run, but they could maybe kind of drag in six wins. Does that save Kalani Sitake's job? I don't know this is the season that you make that judgment. But I would think if he is successful in September, you immediately announced that you're going to renew his contract. I think that would be a good time to do it. If you come off a big win in September. Because a lot of people said no, you can't do it. But listen, this is recruiting, you've got to get your coach a backing of recruiting because it's used against them. And you point, you know, no shorter than just right here across the building here on campus. Where Dave Rose, suffering from cancer, was having opposing recruiters recruit against him because he had cancer. Saying you don't know if he's going to be your head coach, you don't know if he's going to be around, and that was used against him. The same thing is being used if you have a coach, that's a lame duck without a renewed contract. Recruiters come in and they swoop and they make a big deal of that. So I'm saying if it seems like there's success, if there's a big win or two in September and you get a little bit of momentum you do it right then. Am I right? Am I wrong? Jeff?

JC: I've thought for a long time that if BYU you managed to beat Utah, that next day Tom Holmoe makes an announcement because you've got to play off that win. And like you said, recruiters have been using that against BYU for a long time. And it can't stand. I mean, that's not sustainable for that to happen. And for Kalani, for something out of his control to be hammered with that is not fair to him.

BG: Yeah, that Utah game's enormous, and I see this going around the state. I'm now at the time of the year where I'm visiting one or two high schools every day and I ask these coaches about their top recruits and all that. Man, Utah is just making waves. I'm in a place like Lone Peak, which is full of BYU legacy and BYU donors. That's what Lone Peak is and Utah making a lot of big waves there. And you just need to put an end to this. It's just like, we're back. But it takes beating Utah. It's building credibility that they can do something with BYU, they can go to the NFL through BYU, that they can play with these top programs. And that credibility is not there yet. I think it's coming. But it's not there. And you need to achieve that. And it starts with beating Utah.

DH: There you have it. That's what's on the line. Things begin this week. BYU football camp opens on campus midweek and we'll have reports and a podcast next week coming up with some of the details and observations that we've had. Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Cougar Insiders podcast. We'd love to hear from you through email at Cougarinsiders@DeseretNews.com and please subscribe or download this podcast wherever you can find it. We're working to deliver you the most up-to-date information on BYU sports and we'd love to have you join us as we opine on these things. Thank you very much.