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‘Exactly what we wanted’: Previously dominated defense pulls even in final BYU scrimmage of fall camp

Cougars held an 85-play scrimmage Thursday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, but only 30 plays featured full contact because head coach Kalani Sitake said camp had already been physical enough to prepare BYU for the season

SHARE ‘Exactly what we wanted’: Previously dominated defense pulls even in final BYU scrimmage of fall camp

Shamon Willis (29) breaks up a pass as the BYU football team scrimmages on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

PROVO — It is usually one of the rites of preseason training camp for college football teams — the last scrimmage before the focus shifts to “game week” and preparation for the first opponent on the schedule.

It is also customary for the lucky fans invited to watch the last live contact sessions of camp to cheer for the offense to make all the big plays. That’s just the nature of the beast, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake often says.

No fans (or reporters) were present Thursday morning at LaVell Edwards Stadium, as far as we know, so maybe that stirred BYU’s defense to turn in its best performance of any of the three scrimmages held since camp got underway on Aug. 4.

“It was a complete battle between the two,” Sitake reported in a video teleconference Thursday afternoon. “I will have to go watch the film, but I would say right now it was an even match if you look at the guys we had on the field.”

Summarizing the entire day, Sitake said, “I think we got exactly what we wanted from it.”

That wasn’t the case in the first two scrimmages, when some of the biggest defensive stars — guys such as Khyiris Tonga, Isaiah Kaufusi and Payton Wilgar — were held out and the offense dominated, more in the first scrimmage than the second.

“It was a complete battle between the (offense and defense). I will have to go watch the film, but I would say right now it was an even match if you look at the guys we had on the field.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

But still, fans were getting nervous. Was the defense getting trampled, and what would that mean with the precision triple-option attacks of Navy and Army — both on the road — staring the unit right between the eyes? 

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki put those fears to rest, even while acknowledging he has “zero” experience defending the triple-option in his coaching career.

“Today, there were some, off the top of my head, positives on both sides of the ball,” Tuiaki said. “The thing we talk about constantly, and we talk to with the offensive staff about, is we know we are playing a good offensive unit right now. They know they are playing a good defensive unit, and it is going to go back and forth all the time. But it needs to be in order for us to get better.”

Sitake, who flat out said the offense “won the day” the first two scrimmages, noted that every defender got in some action this time, and that made a difference.

“We feel really good about the talent we have on defense, and I thought they matched up a lot better than they did the two previous times we went live,” Sitake said.

About 85 plays were run, but coaches cut back on the physicality and called for only 30 or so reps to be live, which means full contact and tackling are allowed.

“It has been a really physical camp, and looking at our guys, I think that was the best (number of live reps) for us and we were able to get everyone going and competing,” Sitake said. “I was really pleased with the day.”

Sitake and Tuiaki said a positive sign for the defense was seeing some of the twos “close the gap” with the ones in the push for the top spot on the depth chart.

Speaking of which, Sitake said the two-deep is still being formulated. He teased reporters that they will have to “guess what the depth chart will look like without ever seeing football or ever seeing us in person.” Such are the realties of the pandemic.

Seriously, Sitake said, “I want to get it out as soon as I can,” but it could take some time.

One aspect of the depth chart coaches won’t be detailing any time soon is the starting quarterback race, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said. Zach Wilson, Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney are still in the picture, although at this point it would be a stunner if Wilson, with far more game experience than the other two, doesn’t get the starting nod.

“No, we are not ready to say anything yet,” Grimes told the Deseret News. “Every day you gain more information, and certainly we are gaining more information about those guys every day, but we are not in a position to say anything yet.”

Grimes wouldn’t even discuss how the reps were divided in the final scrimmage, saying that divulging that information could put coaches into the position of having to answer even more questions about the derby they have said has been “wide open” since spring camp began back in March.

“We will just continue to say what we have said, and that is that all the guys are progressing,” Grimes said. “I know it is not much information, but they are all getting better and I think the experience that we have there is certainly showing in practice. … You probably won’t hear much else until we are ready to announce something.”

As far as the battle went Thursday between his offense and Tuiaki’s defense, Grimes agreed it was probably a draw. He said the offense scored some points, but also committed turnovers and pre-snap penalties in the red zone and was stopped on fourth down during one particular possession.

“That is what you like to have as a coach, because it gives you something to chew on them about, keep them humble, keep them hungry,” he said. “So I think we are in a good place right now. … It was a good day, but there are definitely some things that we can get them right on.”