PROVO — After absorbing that gut-punch of a loss in the Hawaii Bowl last week, a 38-34 setback to the Rainbow Warriors in front of 21,582 at Aloha Stadium, BYU football coaches and fans have needed a pick-me-up to get them over that second-straight loss and the post-Christmas blues.
They finally got some positive news the past few days, as three of the four BYU players who were most likely to leave early for the NFL draft or transfer said they plan to play out their final seasons of eligibility in Provo.
Star tight end Matt Bushman announced last Friday on his Instagram account that he will return, while standout defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga waited until New Year’s Eve to say he would be back, breaking the news via Twitter.
“Trust the coaches. Trust the process. Trust family,” Tonga wrote. “I have decided to stay at BYU for my senior year. See you in 2020. Go Cougs!”
On Wednesday, the father of offensive lineman Tristen Hoge announced on Twitter that his son plans to return as well.
“This Big Cat is healthy once again and better than ever! 2020 is going to be huge Cougar Nation!” wrote Marty Hoge.
This Big Cat is healthy once again and better than ever! 2020 is going to be huge Cougar Nation! #TrustintheLord #ONELASTRUNSON @BYUfootball @CoachMateos @CindyHoge @HogeTristen @royalarmybrand @InkedCougar pic.twitter.com/FlNvPSlCQp— Marty Hoge (@martyhoge) January 2, 2020
Tristen Hoge, who had transferred to BYU from Notre Dame and sat out the 2017 season, played in all 13 games in 2018 but just five in 2019 before suffering a torn patellar tendon against Toledo. Because he has already graduated and is finishing up his first year in the Masters of Public Administration program, there was some speculation that Hoge would transfer out or give up football altogether.
The former four-star recruit also could have been an immediately eligible graduate transfer at another program, or declared for the NFL draft. But he’s coming back.
“He’s just about 100 percent,” Marty Hoge said. “He’s dialed in and ready to finish off his last season the way he knows he can at a very high level.”
Tuesday, BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes tweeted that he was “really proud” of Bushman and Tonga “for making mature decisions” to return.
“Lots of guys today just chasing the league. More fired up than ever for 2020!” Grimes wrote. “Happy New Year to us!!”
Grimes said before the bowl game that BYU was scouring the transfer portal and maybe even the junior college ranks for receivers and running backs, perhaps knowing then that fifth-year graduate transfer running back Ty’Son Williams was not going to try to get back another year of eligibility after sustaining a torn ACL in the fourth game, against Washington.
“Certainly, (running back and wide receiver) are critical spots for us in this class, yeah,” Grimes said, acknowledging that it is wise to hold open a couple scholarships. “If you are in the market for a transfer, particularly a grad transfer, those things often happen late, as we saw last year (with Williams and fellow RB Emmanuel Esukpa). So you gotta be able to move on one of those guys when the opportunity presents itself. And so we are looking in every nook and cranny that we can to hopefully find a guy that is the right fit for us like we did last year.”
Williams announced the day after Christmas that he will forgo a possible sixth season of eligibility and declare for April’s draft. He told the radio show Cougar Sports Saturday he would have returned to BYU if he believed there was a good chance he would be granted the medical hardship waiver.
“There was a slim chance, but it wasn’t one I was willing to take,” he told the show.
As of Thursday, three players are known to be in the transfer portal — rising juniors Skyler Southam (kicker) and Joe Critchlow (quarterback) and sophomore Hirkley Latu, who left the program in fall camp.
“We have talked to Joe,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said when the early signing period began on Dec. 18. “He loves it here. We are going to give him the opportunity to graduate and then transfer. Looking at the competition, I think he was given a fair shot to compete. He wants to play more, and we want what is best for him, too.”
Sitake said there will “probably” be more more transfers out of BYU, but didn’t elaborate. He reiterated that even if a player enters the transfer portal, he can still return, as safety Beau Tanner did. Tanner made two tackles and broke up a pass in the bowl game, his final game as a Cougar.
“We have guys who want to compete and want to be on the field, and for whatever reason it hasn’t happened here,” Sitake said. “So I imagine there will be others (wanting to transfer).”
Meanwhile, the return of the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Tonga is huge for a BYU defensive line that loses two other significant contributors, outside end Trajan Pili and tackle JJ Nwigwe, who shined in the bowl game with two sacks.
Rising seniors Tonga, Bracken El-Bakri, Uriah Leiataua, Austin Chambers and Zac Dawe will be pushed for playing time by the likes of rising juniors Alden Tofa, Lorenzo Fauatea and Devin Kaufusi. Also expected back are walk-on Gabe Summers and Earl Tuioti-Mariner, who was injured in the South Florida game and was not able to play the remainder of the season.