PROVO — A year ago at this time, BYU’s football recruiting class was ranked 81st in the nation by the website, its worst ranking since recruiting services and websites began the “star system” of ranking prospects in each signing class and comparing one school’s haul to another school’s haul.

There was considerable weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth in Provo — wasn’t fourth-year coach Kalani Sitake supposed to be a brilliant recruiter, fans asked — until the Cougars went out and tapped the transfer portal for South Carolina graduate transfer running back Ty’Son Williams, primarily lured to BYU by running backs coach AJ Steward.

“For the most part, I think (BYU’s signees who aren’t going on church missions) are more ready to play this fall if they are called upon than ever before.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

Williams turned out to be a fantastic find. The Cougars probably wouldn’t have defeated Tennessee and USC without him, and probably would have finished a couple games better than 7-6 if he hadn’t sustained a season-ending knee injury against Washington in the fourth game.

The memory of Williams’ contribution as a difference-maker, unforeseen last February, is one reason why BYU fans shouldn’t be overly upset that on paper it appears Sitake just brought in another lackluster signing class, the fourth straight BYU signing class that has ranked 66th or worse by

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One player really can make a difference. So there’s hope. But the angst will likely continue, after a careful consideration of this year’s class, finalized Wednesday.

BYU’s signing class was ranked 77th as of Thursday afternoon (technically, the signing period isn’t over and teams’ standings can change slightly), which was an improvement from December when the Cougars came out of the early signing period ranked in the 80s.

Bodie Schoonover puts on a BYU hat after announcing he will play football at BYU during signing day at American Fork High School in American Fork on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

BYU got a bump past the likes of Western Kentucky and Southern Miss because coaches finished well, landing several three-star prospects such as American Fork defensive end Bodie Schoonover, Arizona linebacker Tate Romney and offensive tackle Jake Griffin and Las Vegas speedster Miles Davis. Theoretically, those gets saved this class from being BYU’s worst ever in the national team rankings.

“For the most part, I think (BYU’s signees who aren’t going on church missions) are more ready to play this fall if they are called upon than ever before,” Sitake said at his signing day news conference Wednesday. “We are going to have to lean on them because of the type of schedule we play and some of the things we have that test our depth.”

In particular, the Cougars will probably have to rely on a certain graduate transfer from rival Utah, of all places.

Former Utes running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole doesn’t do anything for BYU’s national ranking — just as Williams’ signing last year did not — but it does make it a little easier to swallow for folks who give credence to those rankings and wonder how the Cougars are going to compete against the likes of Utah, Michigan State, Missouri, Minnesota and Arizona State this fall with such a perceived lack of similar talent.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said the 5-foot-9, 197-pound DHC “fills a need” for the Cougars, a notion Sitake seconded.

“We need difference-makers, so that is what we are going to be looking for in all three-phases,” Sitake said when asked if BYU has “room” for more additions from the transfer portal. In other words, they better have room.

Wednesday’s answers at the presser were filled with that kind of optimism, as is almost always the case. But not mentioned were the ones that got away — recruits who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had some interest in BYU, but signed elsewhere.

That list includes Andrew Gentry, a four-star offensive lineman from Colorado who signed with former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall’s Virginia program; Olympus athlete Scotty Edwards (Stanford), Lone Peak safety Nate Ritchie (Utah) and Hawaii offensive lineman Solatoa Moea’i (Utah).

“Had Gentry committed to BYU, (it) would have catapulted 15 spots higher on (the) team rankings,” wrote Jeff Hansen of Cougar Sports Insider. “Gentry was a hurtful miss.”

Again, one player makes a difference — some times on the field, and most times in the minds of win-hungry Cougar fans.

Sure, BYU landed some of the top LDS players in the country, including Romney, Schoonover, Griffin and American Fork receiver Devin Downing (all four are mission-first guys) and quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava. But the trend of losing the best of the best continues for a school with arguably the most shallow recruiting pool in all of college football.

“You asked me my counsel (to improve the football program) to Kalani,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said last week at a roundtable discussion with reporters. “It is that we need to be able to get the best members of our church — the very best ones — and be able to get kids from the state of Utah that are not members of our faith, that are in the state of Utah and understand the culture and would be a great fit because they know the traditions of BYU. We gotta do a better job in the state, and with our church members.”

More sobering news: BYU’s signing class ranks worse than 12 other non-Power Five programs, including Tulane, North Texas, East Carolina, Toledo, Florida International and UNLV. Cincinnati (40th) drew the best signing class among Group of Five schools; Rival Boise State is 65th, Utah is in the top 30, and probably won’t even miss DHC, a player BYU is suddenly counting upon heavily.

Adding to the angst for most BYU followers is that recruiting has clearly slipped under Sitake, if the star-system is to be believed.

Dave Bartoo of says BYU’s average recruiting rating the past four years (2017-20) fell more from the previous four years (2013-2016) than any other school in the country.

BYU’s recruiting class team ranking under Kalani Sitake

2016 — National rank: 49; Average recruit rating: 83.07

2017 — National rank: 66; Average recruit rating: 81.92

2018 — National rank: 78; Average recruit rating: 81.35

2019 — National rank: 81; Average recruit rating: 82.25

2020 — National rank: 77; Average recruit rating: 82.21

Top 15 Group of Five/BYU recruiting classes in 2020

1. Cincinnati (No. 40 nationally)

2. Boise State (65)

3. Tulane (66)

4. North Texas (67)

5. ECU (68)

6. Toledo (69)

7. UCF (70)

8. Florida Atlantic (72)

9. Florida International (73)

10. Louisiana Tech (74)

11. Memphis (75)

12. UNLV (76)

13. BYU (77)

14. Houston (78)

15. Louisiana (79)

Source: 247