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BYU shorthanded on field and sidelines in Boca Raton Bowl vs. UCF

Senior cornerback Chris Wilcox opts out of game to enter NFL draft, starting center James Empey also misses contest in Florida

BYU Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake and UCF Knights head coach Josh Heupel watch warmups prior to the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
BYU Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake and UCF Knights head coach Josh Heupel watch warmups prior to the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

BOCA RATON, Florida — Central Florida wasn’t the only team on the field at the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday night to have a player opt out of the game and turn his attention to April’s NFL draft.

Starting BYU cornerback Chris Wilcox did not make the 2,500-mile trip to South Florida and has reportedly signed with a sports agency with the intention of preparing for the draft, according to Ben Criddle of ESPN 960 AM radio.

Wilcox has battled injuries his entire BYU career and missed two of BYU’s 11 games entering the bowl game. He made 18 tackles and registered one pass breakup in 2020.

In his career, Wilcox made 88 tackles, but never got an interception. He was often assigned to cover the opposing team’s best receiver. At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds with sprinter’s speed, Wilcox has NFL size and tools, despite appearing in only 41 games and missing all but one game in 2019 due to injury.

UCF played without its leading receiver, Marlon Williams, who opted out in late November.

“We won’t be full strength,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said before the game. “We’ve had some issues and things we’ve had to deal with. We will be without a few people here and there.”

The Cougars were shorthanded in several areas.

Linebacker George Udo also did not make the trip, for reasons that were not disclosed. Backup cornerback Shamon Willis was also not available.

Offensive linemen James Empey and Clark Barrington missed the game, too. Barrington was injured during the 22-17 loss to Coastal Carolina and also sat out of the 28-14 win over San Diego State on Dec. 12.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Eric Mateos were not with the team, either, for reasons a BYU spokesperson declined to reveal.

A source said the COVID-19 hit BYU’s OL room recently, which could explain their absences.

A couple players who missed the SDSU game, receiver Gunner Romney (concussion) and running back Tyler Allgeier (illness), played Tuesday night, and Allgeier had a 17-yard run and a 43-yard reception on BYU’s first possession.

Better bowl start

BYU’s start to the Boca Raton Bowl was easily its best in the Sitake era. Two years ago, the Cougars trailed Western Michigan 10-7 at halftime before taking a 49-18 win.

Last year, Hawaii jumped ahead 14-0, led 31-24 at halftime and took a 38-34 win over BYU at Aloha Stadium.

The Cougars couldn’t have asked for a better start at FAU Stadium.

They drove 87 yards in five plays for a touchdown the first time they touched the ball — Zach Wilson ran it in from the 15. On their next possession, Wilson threw a 36-yard TD pass to tight end Isaac Rex, after a flea-flicker, to make it 14-0.

Defensively, the Cougars stopped UCF on its first possession — Micah Harper almost had a pick but it was reversed upon replay review — and then caught a break when UCF receiver Jaylon Robinson dropped a probable TD pass.

The Cougars were stopped on fourth-and-2 on their third possession.

Wilson’s final work?

By all accounts, the BYU junior quarterback made his final appearance as a Cougar in the game. Wilson joined Max Hall and Ty Detmer as the only BYU QBs who have started in three bowl games.

Hall and Jim McMahon were the only BYU QBs with two bowl wins.

Dane Brugler of The Athletic reported Tuesday that Wilson continues to move up NFL draft boards and could be the second quarterback taken in the draft behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

It was assumed that the New York Jets would have the first pick in the draft, but after they defeated the Rams 23-20 on Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars (also 1-13) now have the first pick due to having a lower strength of schedule.

Wilson could theoretically become a Jet, but that would mean the New York team moves away from starting QB Sam Darnold. Other probable first-round drafted quarterbacks include Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

“Based on feedback from around the league, I don’t think there will be any type of consensus from team-to-team on the order of those three quarterbacks,” Brugler wrote. “However, I do think Wilson is the current favorite to be the second quarterback drafted.”

This and that

BYU wore its all-white jerseys with royal blue numbers and trim and the traditional white helmet with the royal stretch Y logo. The Cougars were 2-0 in the uniform combination this season, having defeated Navy and Boise State in them, although they were the designated home team in Boca Raton — which is about a three-hour drive from UCF’s campus in Orlando. … Wilson represented BYU in the coin toss. Flags were carried out by offensive lineman Brady Christensen, fullback Kyle Griffitts (a Florida native), linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi and linebacker Kavika Fonua.