PROVO — From the team managers to the returning players and all the way up to the head coach, a lot of self-reflection and introspection has occurred the past nine weeks for those involved with the BYU football program after the Cougars lost their final two games of the 2019 season to finish with a 7-6 record for the second straight year.
“Yeah, it stings, for sure,” passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick said Thursday. “To end the season with two losses was disappointing. I think all of us feel like we were a much better team last year than the year before.”
But the record was the same, causing some to wonder if the program has plateaued with Kalani Sitake at the helm. He’s 27-25 through four seasons.
“We had some huge wins (over Tennessee, USC and Boise State), but it was the same record at the end of the season, so we have to be honest with ourselves,” Roderick said. “We gotta win more games. … We have to get it done as a program, as a team, as an offense.”
That process started a few days after BYU crumbled in paradise and lost 38-34 to Hawaii on Christmas Eve, and ramps up even more Monday when spring practices begin in Provo.
The Cougars will practice three or four times a week this month before conducting their spring game on March 28 at 11 a.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Pro day is March 27.
Sitake said at national signing day on Feb. 5 that spring ball will be used to work on fundamentals and technique and to identify the players who can contribute in the fall when the season opens Sept. 3 at Utah.
“We feel really good about the situation we are in (with the talent in place),” Sitake said. “I think we are going to be pretty good.”
Roderick said spring ball in 2020 “won’t be a time for major changes,” especially since every assistant coach except running backs coach AJ Steward, who left for Arizona two weeks ago, returns on Sitake’s staff.
“It is a time to keep getting better at what we are doing, keep developing our players,” Roderick said. “We have to find out who our best players are.”
As of Friday afternoon, BYU hadn’t announced Steward’s replacement. Roderick said BYU is “very, very thorough” in hiring coaches so the process is taking time. He said there was “heavy interest” in the opening and the opportunity drew a lot of qualified and impressive candidates.
Five other storylines to follow during spring camp:
The three-headed starting quarterback derby
Roderick told the Deseret News on signing day that camp would feature a “wide-open competition” at quarterback between incumbent junior Zach Wilson and redshirt sophomores Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney, and reiterated that Thursday despite some factions questioning whether the earlier comments were simply coachspeak.
“We have three quarterbacks who have played well in games for us here,” he said. “All three will get chances with the first-team offense.”
And all three will be (mostly) healthy, something that hasn’t happened at spring camp since Jeff Grimes became offensive coordinator and Roderick passing game coordinator two years ago. Roderick revealed that Romney really wasn’t available to play the last few games last season due to a “foot problem” that limited his mobility. The QB who beat Boise State and Liberty and shined in the second half against Utah State only recently started running again.
Hall has been practicing with the baseball team, and was playing sparingly until Friday at New Mexico when he hit a grand slam and scored four times in an 19-8 win. Roderick, Grimes and Sitake are encouraging Hall to take full advantage of his opportunities to play baseball, and are willing to work around his baseball schedule this spring while knowing that “he almost always chooses football first,” Roderick said. “He is almost always available to us.”
As for Wilson, who will fully participate in camp after having to miss last year due to January shoulder surgery, Roderick said he’s redoubled his efforts to improve after an uneven performance in the bowl game, where he went 24 of 40 for 274 yards with two interceptions and a costly, touchdown-erasing fumble.
“All three of those guys are very professional. They compete hard against each other, but they all support each other,” Roderick said. “All three of them have had enough ups and downs already in their careers to know that being the starting quarterback is a pretty heavy burden. … They know the backup quarterback is everybody’s favorite. Those guys all get it.”
Some notable absences
Wilson wasn’t the only marquee player who missed spring camp last year due to injury or surgery, as receiver Aleva Hifo, tight end Matt Bushman and linebackers Zayne Anderson and Isaiah Kaufusi were limited or held out entirely as well.
Expect more of the same this month.
Redshirt freshman receiver Keanu Hill returned to Texas to have shoulder surgery, running back Sione Finau had ACL surgery in January after sustaining a season-ending knee injury in practice before the UMass game in November, and junior offensive guard Keanu Saleapaga had shoulder surgery as well.
Offensive linemen who failed to finish the 2019 season due to injury — Kieffer Longson and Tristen Hoge — will participate but could be a bit limited.
Flash linebacker Chaz Ah You also had shoulder surgery last month, and wouldn’t have participated in spring ball even if he hadn’t been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana a few weeks ago.
BYU hasn’t commented on Ah You’s status since the day news of his arrest broke; Sitake is expected to address it Monday after practice.
Devonta’e Henry-Cole, the graduate-transfer running back from Utah who signed with BYU on Feb. 5, is still finishing the semester at the U. and will join the Cougars “as soon as he graduates,” Roderick said.
About that play-calling
Immediately after the loss in the bowl game in which some questionable play calls were made on both sides of the ball, Sitake hinted that some coaching duties and position assignments might change. He declined to divulge specifics a month or so later during various radio interviews or at signing day, only saying that any changes would be announced shortly.
So far, nothing new has been revealed in that regard.
Of course, Steward leaving for Arizona will necessitate one change; Former BYU RB Harvey Unga, currently a graduate assistant, is in line to get a promotion barring any last-minute problems or changes of heart, several insiders told the Deseret News.
Aside from the RBs coach change, “I don’t know of any major (coaching staff assignment) changes on offense,” Roderick said. “I think one strength of ours is that year 3 is the same system with virtually the same staff we’ve had. … We have all been working together and speaking the same language. We should be more efficient in every thing we do, and we should be better in everything we do. We gotta get it done.”
As for who will handle the play-calling duties on offense, Roderick said that’s a question best left for Sitake to answer, but did agree with Sitake’s oft-repeated response that play-calling is a “collaborative effort” in all three phases.
“I will say that most plays are called Monday through Thursday, where everybody has a system of studying the opponent as thoroughly as possible. Then you have play-calls on a play sheet for every given situation in a game. I would say 95% of the play-calls in a game are somebody putting their finger on the right box according to the situation and just calling what has been practiced,” Roderick said. “So most of our calls come right off the call sheet that we put together as part of our game plan.”
Finding a more disruptive defense
Defensively, the staff took a lot of heat early last year for the failures in stopping the rushing attacks of Utah, Washington and even Toledo and South Florida, then was scrutinized late in the season when Hawaii QB Cole McDonald tore apart the rush three, drop eight, defense BYU employed to the tune of 493 yards and four touchdowns.
The biggest problem seems to be the lack of an effective pass rush; BYU had just 17 sacks in 2019 (1.31 per game), which ranked it 117th in the country among 130 schools.
A glaring weakness, personnel-wise, is the lack of a dominant pass-rusher, a guy such as Bronson Kaufusi, Corbin Kaufusi or Sione Takitaki, past greats at applying pressure in the backfield.
So the search begins in spring camp, with senior Khyiris Tonga and junior Lorenzo Fauatea returning to solidify the middle but needing some help on the edges.
Among the candidates: seniors Zac Dawe and Uriah Leiataua and juniors Alden Tofa and Devin Kaufusi.
“We already know who our best players are in a lot of places, but we have some unproven guys, and this is their chance to show what they can do,” Roderick said.
Coaches have continued to scour the transfer portal, and not just for a big-time receiver to fill that perceived deficiency. They are also looking for a capable pass-rusher, but those are perhaps more difficult to find.
Another option is to turn a linebacker such as Payton Wilgar or Max Tooley into a rush end. Such experiments are what spring camp is for.
Getting more bang for the buck
Last season’s frustrating finish, coupled with another daunting September schedule that begins with better-funded Power Five foes Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State and Minnesota, has created a greater sense of urgency in Provo. There’s a feeling that the Cougars underachieved a bit in 2019, especially after showing their potential with the aforementioned big wins.
Coaches are also fighting the notion that a bit of complacency set in after Sitake was awarded a contract extension a few days after BYU became bowl eligible.
So spring will be about attitude as much as athletic ability, Roderick said.
“No one is going to feel sorry for us regarding how difficult our schedule is,” he said. “Nobody cares about that. And nobody cares about injuries. We just have to get it done. That’s the talk now, is we just have to perform.”
Coaches say the Cougars need to take advantage of the somewhat unexpected returns of Bushman and Tonga and a veteran offensive line, one that can go eight or nine deep without much drop-off.
“We have high expectations, and I have a lot of confidence that we are going to take another big step forward this year,” Roderick concluded.