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BYU OC Jeff Grimes believes returning starters and experience could put Cougars ‘a step ahead’ on offense in 2020

As Grimes enters his third season, Cougars have all of their starting offensive linemen returning, three quarterbacks with game experience, and plenty of depth at running back and tight end

Quarterback Zach Wilson walks near offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes as BYU opens football practice at the indoor facility in Provo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. In a Zoom meeting last month, Grimes said BYU has three quarterbacks capable of leading the offense in 2020. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — When he hasn’t been out exploring Utah’s best hiking trails and taking in its spectacular scenery during the pandemic that has greatly altered every college football coach’s late-spring and early-summer routine, BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes has been analyzing the Cougars’ returning quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and receivers as he prepares for the 2020 season.

He likes what he sees.

“Most of the guys have been around here for a couple of years, and that allows us to start at a deeper point than any other time than we have since I have been here,” Grimes said.

During a Zoom meeting last month, Grimes expressed a “great deal of excitement” for the offense although three key receivers and a couple running backs have graduated. The Cougars return 70.6% of their rushing yards and 95.9% of their passing yards from 2019, but just 50.2% of their pass receiving yards.

That pushes out to 86.8% of their total offense and 64.3% of their scoring returning for the 2020 season, which was seemingly in jeopardy of being shortened or delayed a few weeks ago but now is likely to be played, according to most signs and statements from school presidents and athletic directors.

“The culture is a little more established,” Grimes said. “We have got more leadership. … And our knowledge base should be further along. From all those standpoints, we should be a step ahead. But only time will tell.”

After a couple of spring practices, Grimes was asked what he would have the offense work on during camp and in player-run practices that began last week when the school began allowing players to return to campus.

“Great question,” Grimes said. “So, last year we made a lot of improvements in a variety of areas — total offense was up, our trips to the red zone were way up. We were 15th in the country in getting to the red zone. However, our red zone touchdown percentage and our points didn’t equal our yards. Getting into the end zone once we get to the red zone, our goal line offense, will be a much bigger point of emphasis.”

In the same Zoom meeting last month, head coach Kalani Sitake pointed out that BYU returns every starter from an offensive line that has been ranked as the No. 12 unit in the country by Pro Football Focus. Experienced blockers such as Brady Christensen and James Empey, who have started all 26 games of their college careers, will lead the way.

“We feel like we’ve got athletic, experienced linemen,” Grimes said, mentioning seniors Tristen Hoge, Chandon Herring and Kieffer Longson and juniors Keanu Saleapaga and Joe Tukuafu. “For the first time since I have been here we will have mostly upperclassmen playing with this group. And I think more overall talent, too.”

One of those offensive linemen, former Bonneville High star Ethan Atagi, announced last week he is transferring to Weber State. Atagi is a walk-on who played in only two games last year, UMass and Idaho State.

Grimes said the key will be to continue the offense’s upward trajectory. It improved by 78.9 yards per game from 2018 to 2019, climbing from 364.9 yards per game to 443.3. More explosive plays was the emphasis going into 2019, and the Cougars delivered — the 2019 squad had 227 plays of 10 or more yards, after the 2018 team had just 166.

“We are really excited about the personnel being in the same system for the third year,” he said. “The players and coaches have learned more, too. We know these guys a little bit more each year and we feel great about the way we are going to allow them to play their style of game, utilize their strengths.”

Tight ends coach Steve Clark told the Deseret News last week that means getting the ball into the hands of senior tight end Matt Bushman as much as possible.

Of course, which of three quarterbacks with starting experience — Zach Wilson, Jaren Hall or Baylor Romney — will be delivering the ball is still being debated among BYU faithful. Same as always.

Wilson is the front-runner, having started nine games in 2019. He threw for 2,382 yards and now has 3,960 passing yards and 388 rushing yards in his 16 career starts.

“Everybody wants to talk about the quarterbacks, and I am no exception when you have guys like this. Early in the year (last year), when we had all these guys healthy, it was fun to do some different things with them,” Grimes said. “It is a unique thing to have a couple athletic quarterbacks, certainly more than one, and when you have got three it is even more unusual. It is kinda fun when you have guys who can do things like that on the field.”

BYU’s returning offense by percentage

Rushing yards: 70.6%

Passing yards: 95.9%

Receiving yards: 50.2%

Total offense: 86.8%

Scoring: 64.3%