PROVO — Having been one of Kalani Sitake’s best friends for as long as he can remember, BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki says he’s witnessed the Cougars’ head coach go through a remarkable transformation the past year.
As Sitake prepares to wrap up his fourth BYU preseason training camp with a closed scrimmage on Wednesday and turn his attention full time to arguably the most important game of his tenure in Provo — yes, the Utah game on Aug. 29 — he’s “hit his stride as a head coach,” Tuiaki said.
“It has been fun to be around,” Tuiaki continued. “It has been a really, really cool experience to be a part of that, just being around him while he’s figuring everything out. … His learning curve has been fast. Not to compare other head coaches I have been around, but it has been great to see his growth.”
Asked for an example, Tuiaki said Sitake is becoming a master at moving players to positions that suit them best, then creating competition — position battles, if you will — to bring out the most in the players and get the best 11 on the field.
This camp, in particular, has produced a plethora of battles for starting spots, more than any in recent memory.
“All of them,” was Sitake’s answer last Thursday when asked which positions are undecided, an answer he delivered with a slight smirk. “They are all up in the air.”
That may or may not be true. After only a handful of 15-minute media-viewing opportunities at practice, here’s our list of five competitions to keep an eye on as the first-ever season-opening rivalry game draws nigh:
- Middle linebacker: Junior Kavika Fonua, freshman Keenan Pili, freshman Jackson Kaufusi or freshman Payton Wilgar.
A crowded field is in the running to replace Sione Takitaki, but handicapping this race is difficult because candidates Kaufusi and Fonua have dealt with minor, nagging injuries in camp.
“It is going to take a couple live drills next week and the scrimmage before we can really separate them, because they are all brand-new college football players,” linebackers coach Ed Lamb said. “None of them have any significant game experience (at MLB). … The next step will be how they play when the lights are on, so to speak.”
BYU linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi on who is stepping up at middle linebacker. pic.twitter.com/1WCvX8W0Uu— Jay Drew (@drewjay) August 14, 2019
Lamb said Pili, a returned missionary who prepped at Timpview and is the younger brother of defensive end Trajan Pili, got an opportunity when Kaufusi and Fonua were dinged up and made the most of it.
Another factor: Lamb said the defense has been going back and forth between a 3-4 and 4-3 alignment, so they might need two inside linebackers if the former becomes the preferred front.
- Right tackle: Junior Chandon Herring or freshman Harris LaChance.
This duel to replace Austin Hoyt began in earnest in spring ball, although new offensive line coach Eric Mateos and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes have shied away from even acknowledging that the four other spots on the OL have long since been solidified.
“All of us have been battling it out, grinding it out, working hard every day for one of those five coveted spots,” said LaChance, a 6-foot-8, 306-pound returned missionary from Herriman. “I’m not quite sure how it stands.”
Nearly identical to LaChance in size, Herring, 6-7, 310, has the edge in experience, but not as much as should be expected of a redshirt junior.
- Running back: Senior Ty’Son Williams or sophomore Lopini Katoa.
The incumbent Katoa took the additions of Williams, from South Carolina, and Emmanuel Esukpa, from Rice, as a challenge and honed his body in the offseason, while also increasing his speed and bettering his footwork. He was the Cougars’ leading ball-carrier last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Williams was the offensive star of the first scrimmage on Aug. 10 and seemingly closed what little gap there was. The more important question is how running backs coach AJ Steward will divvy out the carries.
“I always want to go with a workhorse back, if we have one. If not, if we put two guys together and they become the workhorse, or three guys, or whatever it may be, I am fine with that,” Steward said. “I just want to put the best 11 guys on the field every single play. If we play one back consistently until he gets tired and comes out, I am fine with that.”
Steward said Thursday the running back depth chart “fluctuates on a daily basis” and will probably be that way all the way up to the opener.
- Kicker: Freshman Jake Oldroyd or sophomore Skyler Southam.
Lamb, who is also the special teams coach, said Oldroyd has moved ahead “by a thin margin” to handle field goals and PATs, somewhat surprising since the Texan recently returned from a church mission and Southam had the job last year.
“Jake’s got the upper hand in the place-kicking duties, and the punting as well,” Lamb said.
Southam will handle kickoffs again.
“Skyler’s kickoffs are out of this world, for some reason,” Lamb said. “I appreciate the work he’s done on that.”
The coach said Australian Danny Jones “has done a tremendous job” with pinpoint and directional punting and will be called upon when those types of punts are needed.
- Defensive tackle: Sophomore Lorenzo Fauatea or junior Bracken El-Bakri.
Tuiaki, who also coaches the defensive line, said he’s got enough confidence in six or seven defensive linemen to call them starters, including the 300-pound Fauatea and the 287-pound El-Bakri.
“We are pretty set right now as far as the guys we will be counting on,” Tuiaki said. “We will rotate guys in and out a lot, so at least to us coaches, we consider them all starters, because they all have the capability to get in and play right away.”