Not long after he succeeded Bronco Mendenhall as BYU’s head football coach a few days before Christmas in 2015, Kalani Sitake took a long look at the Cougars’ roster and decided he needed to build depth.
Having coached against BYU when he was on rival Utah’s staff from 2005 to 2014, Sitake knew the Cougars’ front-line players were generally pretty good. After that, a sizable drop-off in talent and playing experience doomed BYU to so-so seasons when the injury bug inevitably bit.
Nearly five years later, Sitake’s efforts in that regard are paying off. Despite losing arguably five of his best eight players to season-ending or multiple game-missing injuries, Sitake has the Cougars sitting at 6-0, ranked as high as No. 10 in the Amway Coaches Poll, and in the discussion for a New Year’s Six bowl game in 2020.
“Yeah, we are deep,” said defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri, a Brighton High product who has been affiliated with the program since 2014. “I definitely would agree with that, no question. In every aspect of the field, offensive line, defensive line, everywhere, there are just a lot of guys who have started a lot of games. And we are confident in our experience.”
Consider that tight end Matt Bushman (Achilles) and junior college transfers Hinckley Ropati (knee) and Jacques Wilson (knee) were out for the season before it even began, while running back Jackson McChesney (lisfranc) and linebacker Chaz Ah You (ankle) sustained season-ending setbacks in the opener at Navy, but the Cougars didn’t miss a beat.
Other stars such as defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga (illness), defensive end Lorenzo Fauatea (undisclosed), offensive linemen Tristen Hoge (illness), Keanu Saleapaga and James Empey (ankle), backup QB Jaren Hall (hip), defensive end Uriah Leiataua (knee), linebacker Keenan Pili and receiver Gunner Romney (hamstring) have missed at least one game due to injury or illness with little or no noticeable drops in production.
“We are really deep,” said running back Tyler Allgeier, one of the guys who has probably played more than expected and really flourished. “We have had a lot of guys step up. We have had a lot of injuries happen throughout the year, but there are a lot of guys who have bought in and are seeing success.”
It is all part of the plan, Sitake said Monday in his weekly press briefing with reporters via Zoom.
“When I first go there, we felt like we had a pretty good starting group and needed more depth, and not just size or strength, but all of it, football IQ, everything,” said Sitake, who is now 33-25 in Provo and starting to show up on some early national coach of the year candidate lists. “So we started to establish that. I wasn’t shy about saying that.”
Sitake said “this is the deepest team we have had since we started. But we aren’t just talking about talent — we are talking about (overall) depth, the guys we feel comfortable taking the field with, and that is one thing that you always keep working on.”
In other words, depth-building is never done.
“We have 123 guys on this roster,” Sitake said. “We need all of them to be ready to play. Are we there yet? Nope. But hopefully we get there. I don’t know if any team … feels comfortable with their 123rd guy starting on the field. But that’s our mindset. We have to approach each year that way and we have to approach our roster that way.”
That’s why Sitake is perhaps quicker to clear his bench when games are in hand than any other coach in the country — especially this season when the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to pull players out of the lineup at a moment’s notice. You can never have enough talent, and you can never be too deep, Sitake believes.
Among the players who have filled in admirably this season are backup center Joe Tukuafu, tight ends Masen Wake, Isaac Rex and Carter Wheat, receiver Brayden Cosper and safety Jared Kapisi, a former rugby player who made his first career interception in the 52-14 win over Texas State last Saturday.
Empey and Romney are “questionable” for Saturday’s game against 2-4 Western Kentucky (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN), offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Monday during his “Coordinators’ Corner” program, while defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said Pili has roughly the same status and is “day to day” after missing the TSU game.
“You look at it and you don’t plan on guys getting hurt or whatever,” Sitake said. “But that’s just what happens with the way the season goes and you are dealing with return missionaries or developmental guys. And you are dealing with a violent sport like BYU plays. We play a physical brand of football and so guys get banged up. Some years are worse than others.”
Sitake pointed out the cornerback position as one in which BYU has greatly expanded its depth. With starter Micah Harper sitting out the first half Saturday due to a targeting penalty he incurred the week prior, redshirt junior Keenan Ellis got the nod at right corner and played well.
“We feel like we should be comfortable with every guy who gets on the field,” Sitake said.
It’s a comfort level that has been a long time coming.