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BYU football: No Cougars opting out of 2020 season as ‘game week’ finally arrives amidst COVID-19 pandemic

BYU coach Kalani Sitake releases his depth chart for opener on Sept. 7 against Navy, lists junior Zach Wilson as starting quarterback and adds several ‘funky’ position names to the defensive lineup

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BYU’s Tyler Allgeier runs through a hole during practice on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Allgeier was listed as co-starter at running back with Lopini Katoa on the Cougars’ depth chart released Monday.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

PROVO — Students returned to campus at BYU for fall semester classes Monday, which normally means sudden parking nightmares for football players such Tristen Hoge and Zach Wilson. All BYU student-athletes get hit with that stark realization once a year after having had the place mostly to themselves throughout preseason training camp.

It was different this year, however, as almost everything else has been, due to the coronavirus pandemic that made BYU not nearly as crowded as it usually is in the fall. A lot of students, such as senior defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga, are taking online-only classes.

“You could actually find a parking spot,” Hoge said.

That wasn’t the biggest news to come out of BYU’s football news conferences and release of its depth chart for the Sept. 7 game at Navy, however.

Most notably, Wilson was named BYU’s starting quarterback for the opener, as everyone expected. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Wilson wasn’t given his old job back because of “the entirety of his career or the larger sample size that is there for him.”

Rather, Grimes said, “he earned the job based on what he did this fall.”

Wilson, the junior who started the 10 games in which he was healthy last year, took the news — which wasn’t exactly a secret — with his typical humility and class.

“Whether or not they said I was the starter from day 1, the work I put in all offseason was going to be exactly what I did,” he said.

The depth chart includes funky new defensive position titles such as “Jack” and “Rover” and “Cinco” to describe what head coach Kalani Sitake referred to as “hybrid” spots that require unique talents mostly possessed by safeties, cornerbacks and linebackers. There were a few surprises, such as newcomers Kody Epps, Chris Jackson, Micah Harper, Connor Pay and Caleb Christensen making the two-deep and linebacker-turned-running back Tyler Allgeier listed as a co-starter at running back with Lopini Katoa.

“Yeah, the whole ‘opting out’ thing is their own personal choice. I would never try and feel like I am putting someone at risk by urging them one way or another as far as that decision. I feel like it was never a decision that actually ever came to (a vote) or had to be discussed. … We asked the question one time if guys that felt like not playing this season would be an issue (for them) and not one player stood up and said anything.” — BYU quarterback Zach Wilson

“I guess we will find out,” Sitake said when asked what Allgeier did in camp to move up the depth chart.

Nationally, college football news over the weekend and on Monday centered on how more players were opting out due to COVID-19 concerns, including Navy starting slotback Keoni-Kordell Makekau. The Hawaii native rushed for 212 yards and caught five passes for 175 yards and a touchdown last season.

So far, no BYU players have opted out, assistant head coach Ed Lamb said on BYUtv’s “Coordinators’ Corner” program Monday morning. BYU remains the only college football team west of Texas still planning to play this year.

“I think it is fantastic for our guys to have the choice to play,” Lamb said. “And to my knowledge, everybody has chosen to play at this point. So we’re really excited about the opportunity we have.”

Wilson, whom teammates and roommates have said obsesses over football night and day, confirmed that no BYU players have even thought about not playing.

“Yeah, the whole ‘opting out’ thing is their own personal choice,” Wilson said. “I would never try and feel like I am putting someone at risk by urging them one way or another as far as that decision. I feel like it was never a decision that actually ever came to (a vote) or had to be discussed. … We asked the question one time if guys that felt like not playing this season would be an issue (for them) and not one player stood up and said anything.”

There has been an unwavering focus on getting ready for Navy, Sitake said, while still following the strict protocols put in place by BYU’s sports medicine team and administration months ago.

“We have been in contact with Navy about our testing and protocol and everything like that, so as we start getting closer to game time, we will definitely have our guys tested throughout the week and make sure we are ready to roll and everybody is (healthy),” Sitake said. “We are wearing masks and doing everything we can to do it the right way. It is exciting that we are trending toward something that could lead back to normal life.”

The coach said it is not just about protecting themselves from COVID-19, but all those around them. Obviously, students returning to campus this week — albeit in smaller numbers than usual — presents even more challenges.

What if there is a spike in positive cases?

“I have been pleased with the way both schools have been able to make this happen for us and we will just deal with whatever happens, depending on tests and depending on what other policies and protocols may come up,” Sitake said. “We are down with doing whatever is expected of us.”

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BYU center James Empey prepares to snap the ball during practice on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU

As far as logistics go, Sitake told the Deseret News that the Cougars will fly to Annapolis, Maryland, early Sunday morning, although in the past when they travel to the Eastern time zone they usually fly in two days before the game.

They practiced Monday and will practice again Tuesday afternoon, then take Wednesday off and practice again Thursday, Friday and Saturday while staying under the NCAA-allotted 20 hours a week of football activities.

Although it is the day before kickoff, the Cougars won’t practice or have any team meetings on Sunday, which they never do for religious reasons. They will conduct their usual day-before-game walkthroughs on Monday morning, thankful the Labor Day showdown to be televised nationally by ESPN has a late kickoff in the East.

“We looked at a lot of different things, even what NFL teams do,” Sitake said. “And it is different going from East to West than West to East. For us, looking at the dynamics, looking at the hours, it probably works best for us doing it this way. … So being able to know the game is 8 p.m. (ET) on a Monday night, gives us a lot of time that we can get things set and have our guys ready to go.”