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Pandemic won’t stop BYU football program from moving forward, coach Kalani Sitake tells fans in Zoom meeting

Coach heading into his fifth season says he is ‘confident’ that the Cougars will be ready and prepared whenever the 2020 college football season begins.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates a touchdown as BYU and USU play at Maverik Stadium in Logan on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. Sitake starts his fifth season in Provo on Sept. 7, 2020, when the Cougars meet Navy in Annapolis, Maryland. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — If the 2020 college football season is played, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake said Wednesday that his Cougars will be as ready and prepared as any team in the country.

“Our players, I have a lot of confidence in them that they are out there working (during the pandemic) on their own,” Sitake said in a “Zoomin’ with the Cougs” segment that is part of the school’s virtual and social media celebration this week.

“Even throughout spring ball (which was canceled after six practices), we were accomplishing our goals,” Sitake said. “We were on the path of getting where we needed to be. I can honestly say the quarantine will not stop that from going forward.”

Sitake, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, tight end Matt Bushman and linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi participated in the 65-minute question-and-answer session on the Zoom video conferencing website.

Nobody was asked, or predicted, if the season will start Sept. 3 at Utah, as is scheduled, but all spoke optimistically about their expectations for a team that went 7-6 last year and fell 38-34 to Hawaii in a bowl game on Christmas Eve.

“Other places are panicking because they are worried about getting their guys training and getting them in shape,” Sitake said. “I feel really confident in what the guys are doing, and the responsibility that they hold themselves to and each other to. The love that they share with each other is amazing. The expectations that our fans have for these young men and our coaches, we are excited for.”

After he toyed with entering the NFL draft but decided to return, Bushman was asked what his hopes are for his final season in Provo.

“We are just tired of falling back into mediocre seasons,” Bushman said. “We want to be great. We want to be a program that stands out and is the best. So no matter what happens, we are hoping to get (to play) every game, and hoping to get all the fans there to be there with us and experience this great season. We are sick and tired of being mediocre and we want to be great and win some big-time football games and just play with the best.

“We are definitely more motivated than ever right now,” Bushman concluded.

Kaufusi said the team has some “clearly defined goals” which it has written down and expects to accomplish. Both players said the game they are looking forward to the most is the opener at Utah.

“Hopefully we can play every team on our schedule,” Kaufusi said. “I just look forward to playing football in general, but definitely there is a circle around the first game, and we are hoping to play that one, for sure.”

Said Bushman: “I would say it is Utah. I have gone 0-3 against them and I am really looking forward to playing them my senior year. Yeah, I just want to come out on top and show those guys what we are really made of.”

The players said they have been in communication with their position coaches on a daily basis. Former players such as linebacker Rob Morris and offensive lineman John Tait have spoken to their respective position groups via Zoom.

“I have seen with my own eyes in May that our players are stronger now and closer now than they were last year. That’s a great feeling for me and that’s why these guys want to get to that first game and get to the season,” Sitake said. “We are a people of transition and adjustment, and the players have been amazing.”

Grimes and Tuiaki showed plays from last year and some spring practices to highlight the top returning players, choosing to focus on them rather than the newcomers they are most excited about.

“First of all, we have a really good team,” Tuiaki said. “I am really, really excited about the team. … We are so stoked to get back on track and just get back to do our deal, as well as have the opportunity to compete.”

A freshly-shaven Grimes, who has posted several photos on social media during the quarantine of him recreating in the backcountry with a full beard, said his hope for the 2020 team is that it finds the consistency and ability to finish that were lacking last year.

“We have shown here that we can play with anybody,” Grimes said. “When we are on we can play with anybody around. We just need to be on more consistently. I think that our experience will have something to do with that. I think that our resiliency and toughness will have something to do with that. I think we will show that we can do that on a more consistent basis this season.”

Asked by a fan to name their all-time favorite BYU football victories, Sitake said any win that ends with fans rushing the field. Tuiaki said the 2018 upset of then-No. 6 Wisconsin, while Grimes said BYU’s 33-31 win over Utah in 2006 when he was the Cougars’ offensive line coach and the overtime victory over USC last season.

Kaufusi said the win over Wisconsin and the 2019 win at Tennessee were tops for him, while Bushman mentioned the wins over USC and Boise State last year.

Regarding the health of the team, Tuaki said “defensively, we’re pretty healthy” and mentioned the expected returns from injury of defensive backs Keenan Ellis, Troy Warner, Chris Wilcox and Zayne Anderson. He said linebacker Payton Wilgar missed spring camp due to illness (not coronavirus) but is fully recovered.

Grimes said running back Sione Finau (knee), tight end Hank Tuipulotu (knee) and center Joe Tukuafu (foot) missed spring practices but should be available this fall if there’s a season.

“I anticipate we will have everybody back by the time the season rolls around,” Grimes said.

Whenever that may be.