‘We haven’t hit the ceiling’: Former BYU football players weigh in on program’s future entering 10th season of independence
Linebackers Jordan Pendleton and David Nixon and receiver Dylan Collie tell the Deseret News what it will take for the BYU football program to move past its current mediocrity under coach Kalani Sitake
PROVO — BYU’s football program enters its 10th season of independence, and fifth season under coach Kalani Sitake, this fall when it opens the 2020 campaign on Sept. 3 in Salt Lake City against the rival Utah Utes.
Of course, that’s contingent on the season starting as scheduled as the sports world slowly recovers from the coronavirus pandemic that has affected every college athlete in the country in one way or another.
With those milestones approaching, now seems like a good time to gather some takes on the state of the program from players who have given their blood, sweat and tears to BYU football the past decade or two.
The Deseret News recently asked three of the more outspoken former players — linebackers Jordan Pendleton and David Nixon and receiver Dylan Collie — for their thoughts on where the program is now, and where it might be heading as a new decade dawns.
Most predicted a mild upswing, while acknowledging the usual perceived impediments — lack of adequate resources, lack of major conference affiliation, difficult early-season scheduling, academic restrictions — make Sitake’s job one of the most difficult in the country.
“Do I think that we have the same talent as Alabama and Clemson? No, absolutely not. Do we have the same resources as Alabama and Clemson? No, we do not. … But you put BYU against the other 115 schools in the nation that are kinda on the same playing field with resources and accessibility and things like that, we are not in that bad of a place.” — Former BYU receiver Dylan Collie
Dylan Collie (2012, 2018)
“No, we haven’t hit the ceiling, we’ve got some good years ahead of us,” said Collie, the most recent Cougar, having exhausted his eligibility in 2018 after a three-year career at Hawaii. “Everybody has a time and place. Everybody cares deeply. No matter what happens — BYU could have losing seasons for five straight seasons — and people are still going to follow BYU. It is very difficult for people to pull away from BYU.”
Collie has a unique perspective because he redshirted at BYU in 2012 when the Cougars went 8-5 and defeated San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl in their second season of independence, then returned in 2018 when BYU shook off the 4-9 disaster of 2017 with a 7-6 season and a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win over Western Michigan.
He earned his master’s in public administration at BYU and now works with former BYU basketball standout Jackson Emery for a San Francisco-based company that runs high-dimensional analysis for engineering platforms.
“After being in the real world for almost two years now, you realize that stuff doesn’t happen at the click of a button,” he said. “Yes, it is 2020 and it is time to update (the facilities, including the locker room), but a lot of that is out of Kalani’s control. “With some of the limitations that are imposed, BYU is getting a lot out of what it puts in.”
Collie, who watched his brother Austin star for several of BYU’s better teams in 2007 (11-2) and 2008 (10-3), said Sitake has recruited well and will succeed when he gets “all his guys” into the program.
“Do I think that we have the same talent as Alabama and Clemson? No, absolutely not,” Dylan Collie said. “Do we have the same resources as Alabama and Clemson? No, we do not. … But you put BYU against the other 115 schools in the nation that are kinda on the same playing field with resources and accessibility and things like that, we are not in that bad of a place.”
Give the current offensive staff time, he said, and watch the wins flow.
“You are always going to have five or six guys every couple of years who have dreamed of playing at BYU who are going to choose BYU over any other school,” he said. “I think you are seeing that with the guys who are coming in now. … I obviously have a strong bias toward this, but you come to BYU, you know what you are getting. It has been that way for a very long time. It is attached to something much larger, and in my opinion much greater than just how are we going to get people into the NFL draft?”
“I still think there is hope, but it is going to take a lot of work, and there has to be the right people in place, and there has to be the right culture. There is a lot that needs to go into turning the program around, but consistency is the key.” — Former BYU linebacker Jordan Pendleton
Jordan Pendleton (2007-2011)
Pendleton, whose sister is married to Austin Collie, is less bullish on BYU’s future than Dylan Collie.
“I still think there is hope, but it is going to take a lot of work, and there has to be the right people in place, and there has to be the right culture,” said Pendleton, who played under Bronco Mendenhall. “There is a lot that needs to go into turning the program around, but consistency is the key. We have seen glimpses — like last year when we beat USC at home. We have been able to compete with some high-caliber teams. But then we will go lose to an inferior team that normally we should be able to run over and handle pretty easily.”
Pendleton, who owns the Pendleton Performance training facility in Lehi and works with athletes from all of the colleges in the state, said he “can see it going either way very quickly” the next few years.
“With the history of the school, and the tradition, and the dominance in the past, how good we’ve been in the past, going back to the early ’80s and some of those teams in the 2000s, and even in the 2010 era, we have had a history of some phenomenal teams,” he said. “There still is a desire for a lot of kids to go play there. They grew up watching BYU; they grew up as BYU fans. We’ve got to remain a viable option for them.”
Agreeing with his brother-in-law’s brother, Pendleton said Sitake seems to have established a more physical culture the past few years. Now he just needs more depth.
“I think some of our starters are good enough to play anywhere, play at several different schools and still be able to contribute and start,” Pendleton said. “But we don’t have great depth. And that is something that BYU will always have an issue with, just because of the restrictions that we have on recruiting. I believe 100% that is a factor.”
Pendleton said BYU does get “phenomenal athletes” on occasion, but nothing like Pac-12 schools, including Utah, reel in annually.
“One of their starters goes down, they have another four-star recruit coming in, whereas at BYU, one of our starters goes down, we have a walk-on potentially taking over,” he said. “There is definitely a huge difference, and it is always going to be like that because of the type of school that it is, being a private institution.”
Pendleton has to tread lightly when he discusses strength and conditioning at BYU, but he’s been mostly supportive of Sitake’s staff in that regard. He does acknowledge that “for whatever reason, we do have a lot of injuries. It is just a fact.”
Those injuries, like the ones that ended four of star quarterback Taysom Hill’s five seasons in Provo, have been devastating, especially in key positions and due to the lack of depth, Pendleton said.
Very few people know how much BYU football coaches are paid, but Pendleton believes it is not enough, and added that recruiting has changed significantly the past decade, and that BYU hasn’t kept up.
“Kids are into flashy things and shiny things, and all these top programs know that,” he said. “You always know a top program because it is always under construction, meaning they are always changing things, always adding new gadgets, always adding new equipment, always adding new buildings and stuff like that because that is how they are enticing these kids to come to their programs.”
“We will beat USC, Tennessee and Wisconsin and then we will lose to South Florida and Toledo. Obviously, it is frustrating. That’s the problem right now. We are on a roller coaster. You don’t know which team is going to show up on any given Saturday.” — Former BYU linebacker David Nixon
David Nixon (2003, 2006-08)
Then-BYU coach Gary Crowton — an underrated recruiter, several former players said — beat several Big 12 schools, LSU and others for Nixon’s talents in the early 2000s, and Taysom Hill’s brother-in-law laments that those kind of recruiting wins, even for Latter-day Saint players, haven’t happened a lot for the Cougars lately.
“You’ve got to get that top-level LDS talent,” said Nixon, who is in commercial real estate now and has a “side hustle” as a BYUtv college football analyst. “That used to be the lifeblood.”
Like Pendleton, Nixon would like to see more consistency.
“We will beat USC, Tennessee and Wisconsin and then we will lose to South Florida and Toledo,” he said. “Obviously, it is frustrating. That’s the problem right now. We are on a roller coaster. You don’t know which team is going to show up on any given Saturday. That is something the coaches and players have to figure out. They have to rise to the occasion week in and week out.”
Nixon expects better quarterback play this season and notes how John Beck improved significantly between his sophomore and junior seasons. Presumed starter Zach Wilson enters his junior year with 16 starts under his belt.
“Injuries have hurt Zach’s development,” Nixon said. “Injuries have hurt us a lot, up and down the roster. Last year we had the most freshmen playing in the country. That’s something we didn’t have to deal with as much when I was playing.”
Some of those injuries can be attributed to the difficulty of the schedule, he noted, although three of Hill’s injuries came against Utah State and the fourth, the Lisfranc foot injury against Nebraska, came in a noncontact situation.
“When you are playing the Wisconsins and Michigans and LSUs of the world, inevitably we are going to get banged up,” Nixon said.
As for the financial support from the university, Nixon agrees that upgrades are needed — particularly in the locker rooms — but also believes if the wins come, the money will follow.
“Frankly, to get stellar support, you have got to win. And you have to put a winning product on the field to get donors excited,” he said. “But these 7-6 seasons, with so much inconsistency, make it tough to get money flowing into the program. Coaches are aware of that. Everyone is aware of that.”