PROVO — OK, let’s get right to it, with spring football camp at BYU set to begin in about two weeks.
It is never too early to analyze the starting quarterback competition at a school that relies as heavily on that position as any program in college football, given its difficult schedules and perceived shortcomings in depth and talent.
Do BYU’s offensive football coaches — primarily passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes — have another quarterback derby on their hands?
Or is rising junior Zach Wilson, “who earned the right to be our starter last year,” according to Roderick, the clear-cut QB1 again this year?
It depends on whom one asks.
Head coach Kalani Sitake said in the days leading up to the Hawaii Bowl that a new season would bring “another look at every position, as usual,” and that attitude has apparently rubbed off on his assistants.
“Yeah, every day is a wide-open competition in spring ball,” Roderick said on Feb. 5 as the Cougars announced their 2020 signing class and most coaches met with reporters for the first time since that deflating 38-34 loss to Hawaii on Christmas Eve. “We will compete in spring, for sure.”
It’s a three-man derby, as Wilson attempts to hold off redshirt sophomores Jaren Hall (even as the outfielder splits time between baseball and football the next few months) and Baylor Romney.
Had Hall and Romney not played well when they got their chance last season, there might not be a QB controversy in Provo. But both were mostly effective, and both delivered wins in at least one of their starts.
“We’re lucky that we have three really good players there,” Roderick said.
Walk-on Rhett Reilly, a sophomore from the San Diego area, will be the fourth quarterback in Roderick’s room.
Three-star QB Sol-Jay Maiava, a 6-foot, 190-pound dual-threat guy from Kahuku, Hawaii, by way of Washington, D.C., signed with BYU in December and will join the program in June.
“You always want to sign a quarterback in every class, and we are certainly excited about Sol-Jay,” Grimes said on signing day. “He is a great playmaker. I think he will fit us just right.”
There is some talk that Maiava is so athletic that he might get work at a different position while he waits for the QB depth chart to thin out, but Sitake reiterated he was signed to play quarterback “and will be a quarterback.”
BYU’s fourth-stringer in 2019, Joe Critchlow, is in the transfer portal. A recent report suggested the possible graduate transfer with two seasons of eligibility remaining is interested in Central Michigan as a potential landing spot. Critchlow completed 64 of 113 passes for 715 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions in his BYU career.
Looking ahead, BYU signed four-star prospect Jacob Conover as part of its 2019 signing class a year ago, and the phenom from Chandler, Arizona, almost immediately departed on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Paraguay. He is scheduled to return in a year and participate in 2021 spring ball.
BYU signed two quarterbacks in 2018, Wilson and Stacy Conner, a 6-foot-5 Texan who has since left the program.
Roderick said he expects Wilson to take another good step forward this year because he will have the entire offseason to hone his craft after missing most of the spring and summer workouts last year due to January 2019 shoulder surgery.
“All three guys will get reps, and it is going to be a competition this spring,” Roderick said. “Every day, we are going to try to make it as competitive as we can. That brings out the best in everyone.”
Wilson completed 62.4% of his passes for 2,382 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019 but didn’t progress as steadily as BYU fans would have liked after a sensational performance in the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as a true freshman.
“I expect Zach to improve a lot, but I am going to let Baylor and Jaren and Zach have opportunities in the spring to show what they can do,” Roderick said. “And everybody will get chances with the first-team offense.”
Roderick said Hall is “a very important part of our program,” but football coaches have already decided they won’t stand in Hall’s way if he wants to dedicate more time to baseball than he did last spring.
“I told him that any time there is a game or anything where he has a chance to be in the lineup and have a good role in the baseball game, I am not going to (stop him),” Roderick said.
- Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall (3) makes a throw during the first half of an NCAA football game at Maverik Stadium in Logan on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. Colter Peterson, Deseret News
- Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Baylor Romney hands off to Brigham Young Cougars running back Sione Finau near the end of the game against the Boise State Broncos during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Ravell Call, Deseret News
As for Wilson’s uneven performance in the bowl game, which some have suggested opened the competition this spring, Roderick said the former Corner Canyon High star played a good game.
“He did a lot of really good things in that game,” Roderick said. “We went up and down the field pretty well and he was the driving force behind most of that. … It was unfortunate that the last interception of the game was a mistake. He made a bad mistake on that, and he knows it. He made a bad decision.”
The first interception Wilson threw wasn’t his fault, Roderick said, while calling the quarterback’s decision to leap over a defender near the goal line, which resulted in a fumble and loss of possession, “a rookie move.”
“The key now is if we can cut down on our turnovers next year, just cut our turnovers in half, our offensive production is going to go way up,” Roderick said. “We already made a huge improvement this year, and the stage is set to be really good on offense next year.”
No matter who is the starting quarterback.