PROVO — An attempt to draw up a BYU football depth chart for the 2020 season, altered and probably condensed by the COVID-19 pandemic, provides ample evidence that what head coach Kalani Sitake has been saying for months is true.
The Cougars are going to have a deep, talented and experienced team this season, perhaps the best BYU team in Sitake’s five seasons at the helm.
A lot of good players won’t even make the two-deep lineup that coaches are expected to release Monday as “game week” begins in advance of the Sept. 7 opener at Navy. That’s especially true at the linebacker, quarterback and offensive line positions, where the Cougars are loaded.
“We have a lot of experience at a lot of different places,” Sitake said. “That’s in all positions.”
Optimism always abounds in August, but there’s a quiet sense of confidence in this bunch coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons and the excruciating loss to Hawaii in the bowl game on Christmas Eve that “lit a fire under us,” in the words of starting quarterback Zach Wilson.
Wilson and other team leaders say that’s a reason why the players pushed so hard to play and remain the only college team west of Texas still planning to have a season.
“My biggest (reason for confidence) is that we are going to be a dang good football team this year,” said Wilson. “And that’s what I am excited about. We are out here going to levels that we have never been to before in the past. … I am confident we are going to be a way better offense and a way better team.”
In Sitake’s four seasons since succeeding Bronco Mendenhall in 2016, the knock against the popular coach’s tenure has been the lack of consistency. Like last year, when the Cougars knocked off Tennessee, USC and Boise State but lost to Toledo, South Florida and Hawaii.
Asked what it will take to put a more consistent product on the field, Sitake said he couldn’t “narrow it down to just one thing” but offered “staying healthy” as a good start.
“There are so many different variables that go into it, but that’s the number one thing that comes to mind, avoiding injuries,” said Sitake, who enters his fifth season with a record of 27 wins, 25 losses in Provo.
It’s a shame that BYU won’t get to test itself against the Power Five-laden schedule that athletic director Tom Holmoe originally put together. Not getting a chance to take down Utah after the program has suffered nine-straight losses to the rival Utes is especially painful, several players said.
As of Friday, BYU’s revamped schedule featured only eight opponents, and none are from Power Five leagues. In the place of the likes of Utah, Michigan State, Minnesota, Arizona State and Missouri are Western Kentucky, Army, Texas-San Antonio, Troy State and Texas State.
But the Cougars aren’t complaining.
“I feel like everyone wants as many (games) as they will let us have, really,” said BYU running back Lopini Katoa. “So to see more added is awesome, and then we are also just thankful for the ones that we have, knowing that a lot of people are not able to play. We will take what they can give us.”
Here’s a closer look at the three phases of BYU’s team in 2020: offense, defense and special teams:
With eight returning starters on offense, including the entire offensive line and Wilson, a starter since midway through his freshman season, the Cougars should be able to move the ball effectively against every team on their current schedule.
The key will be better efficiency in the red zone, a point of emphasis for offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes after shortcomings inside the 20 cost BYU a couple of victories in 2019.
“We want to eliminate the self-inflicted wounds in particular — turnovers, presnap penalties especially,” Grimes said. “We have been spending a lot of time working on it, talking about our touchdown percentage and being efficient in the red zone.”
Wilson will need to overcome his penchant for untimely mistakes for the offense to really purr. He threw for 11 touchdowns last season, but was intercepted nine times. If he struggles, sophomores Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney proved last year they are more than capable of delivering big wins.
Sitake has wanted to get bigger, tougher and meaner on the offensive line since he arrived in 2016, and this year he should finally get his wish.
Led by All-America candidates Brady Christensen at left tackle and James Empey at center, this should be one of the best offensive lines at BYU in the past 20 years, maybe more.
The running back position has been a mixed bag for the Cougars since Jamaal Williams graduated, due to lackluster talent and injuries, primarily. Utah transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole bolted for Utah State (which isn’t playing this year, ironically) but with Lopini Katoa, Tyler Allgeier, Jackson McChesney and Sione Finau (if he comes back from a knee injury) proving in 2019 they can perform adequately, the Cougars should be OK.
If junior college transfer Hinckley Ropati lives up to his billing as a late addition to the RBs room, watch out.
“These guys are hungry and eager to show they belong,” new running backs coach Harvey Unga said.
No less than half of BYU’s receiving production graduated from a year ago, but the Cougars restocked with possibly their best incoming group ever (freshmen Kody Epps, Miles Davis and Terence Fall and junior college transfer Chris Jackson) and still have junior Gunner Romney, Dax Milne and Neil Pau’u for Wilson and company to utilize.
The big offseason news for the BYU defense is that it will get into a four-man front more frequently. The three-man scheme that caused so much consternation last year when some teams ran at will on the Cougars and others carved them up with the pass because they couldn’t get pressure on opposing quarterbacks will still be used, just not as often.
Ilaisa Tuiaki’s rush three, drop eight attack was effective at times, but riddled at other moments.
“I think the biggest difference between this year and all those other years is we have a lot more depth right now with guys that we feel comfortable about putting into the game and helping us on defense,” Tuiaki said.
With defensive backs Austin Lee, Dayan Ghanwoloku and Beau Tanner graduating, most of the holes are in the secondary.
Seniors Troy Warner, Chris Wilcox and Zayne Anderson are finally healthy after missing most or all of the past few seasons with injuries.
“A huge chip on their shoulders,” is how Warner described the Cougars’ secondary. “One thing that I have really noticed about this group is they just compete, and that’s something that has been consistent all throughout fall camp. Short term memory (is prevalent).”
BYU is so deep at linebacker — with Isaiah Kaufusi, Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili the probable starters — that Tuiaki and LBs coach Ed Lamb have been able to train veterans Chaz Ah You, Kavika Fonua and Max Tooley at other positions, be it rush end in the case of Tooley or nickel for Ah You and Fonua, who are decent in pass coverage for their size.
“Getting the best 11 guys on the field is coach Sitake’s wish, and that’s what we will work for,” Tuiaki said.
Navy transfer Pepe Tanuvasa, sophomore Jackson Kaufusi (Isaiah’s brother) and promising redshirt freshman Ben Bywater are other possibilities at ’backer.
When massive senior tackle Khyiris Tonga decided to return, some of BYU’s issues on the defensive line were solved. But senior Uriah Leiataua sustained a knee injury in fall camp, a damaging blow for those 4-3 plans.
The transfer of Devin Kaufusi to Utah is also problematic, considering the Cougars lack bonafide pass-rushers. Tuiaki says the unit will be OK if seniors Zac Dawe and Bracken El-Bakri remain healthy and sophomores ’Naisa Mahe and juniors Lorenzo Fauatea and Alden Tofa continue to develop.
Before spring camp was cut short, freshman returned missionary Tyler Batty was turning heads as an edge rusher. Walk-on Gabe Summers, redshirt freshman Seleti Fevaleaki and Fisher Jackson should add depth.
Missed field goals cost the Cougars a game or two in 2020, but it appears BYU is sticking with redshirt sophomore Jake Oldroyd to handle the field goal and PAT duties in 2020. Former starting kicker Skyler Southam, who lost his job to Oldroyd, transferred to Utah.
Oldroyd, who booted the game-winning field goal in the 2016 opener against Arizona before his mission, went 16 of 24 on field goal attempts last year. He also averaged 43.2 yards per punt while sharing duties with Australian Danny Jones, who decided not to return to the team.
Freshman returned missionary Ryan Rehkow will handle the punting chores in 2020, Sitake said.
“We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about special teams, but Rehkow and Jake have done a great job with punting and place kicking,” Sitake said on Aug. 18.
BYU will miss Aleva Hifo’s outstanding punt returning. Receiver Dax Milne handled a few punts last year, and is the heir apparent there.