‘Nice little jolt of energy’: Adding Navy gave BYU’s players and coaches a much-needed emotional lift
Cougars wrapped up their first week of preseason training camp on Friday with the knowledge that their efforts won’t be for naught after athletic director Tom Holmoe secured a Week 1 opponent on Labor Day night on ESPN
PROVO — It was the lift the BYU Cougars needed to get through the first week of preseason training camp in the dog days of summer and 90-degree heat of Utah County.
All the mask wearing, sweating and tough physical contact they were enduring in their first day wearing pads was not going to be for naught, because athletic director Tom Holmoe had found them a Week 1 opponent: Navy.
“It definitely boosted everyone’s spirits knowing that we get to play in Week 1 and that we get to start preparing for someone and start studying film and whatnot,” sophomore linebacker Payton Wilgar said Friday, a day after the Cougars got the news. “So it was exciting.”
“It definitely boosted everyone’s spirits knowing that we get to play in Week 1 and that we get to start preparing for someone and start studying film and whatnot, So it was exciting.” — BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar
Even the coaches were ecstatic.
“I think for all of us it gave us a nice little jolt of energy,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who texted the news to his wife and best friend “to let them know how excited I was, too.”
Grimes and head coach Kalani Sitake said losing the fear of going deep into September, perhaps even into October, without having an opener enabled the Cougars to focus a little more than usual in Friday’s practice, the fourth of camp and second in pads.
“I am thinking the guys are breathing a sigh of relief,” Sitake said. “Yeah, we’re really excited about it.”
Facing Navy’s vaunted triple-option offense in an opener, but without the traditional lengthy time to prepare due to the last-minute nature of the late-added game, is probably not optimal, but Sitake said “I don’t think we were in a position to really be picky.”
While discussing possible opponents to replace Utah and the supposed Sept. 3 opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium with Holmoe, Sitake said he put his complete trust in the athletic director and was pleased with how it came together quickly.
“We were willing to play whenever, whoever,” he said.
That the game is on Labor Day night in front of a national television audience on ESPN is just a bonus.
“I think it is awesome,” said junior running back Lopini Katoa. “We had a lot of faith in what coach Sitake was telling us, in what Tom Holmoe was doing. We knew that it wasn’t a matter of if, it was when. So just to finally have a name to that Week 1 game is exciting. And it is a great matchup. Yeah, it definitely excited all of us.”
Although the Cougars won’t install a game plan specifically for Navy for a couple more weeks — kickoff is four weeks from Monday — Grimes said there’s value in having a specific date, as well as having a specific opponent.
“You continue as a coach to try to preach the message that we are going to prepare and be ready for whenever, whomever — kind of like the Roman army, a nameless, faceless opponent,” he said. “But when you can put a stamp on a name and a date, it allows you the opportunity to say, ‘OK, now we know exactly what we are looking for and when that day will be here.’”
BYU hasn’t faced an option offense since Sitake took over in 2016, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t familiar with defending one. He was Utah’s defensive coordinator when the Utes defeated Ken Niumatalolo-coached Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“We have had a lot of experience in the past defending it, especially with Air Force being in the area,” Sitake said.
Added Wilgar, who said he will remain an inside linebacker for the time being although it has been rumored he might give rush defensive end a try: “Yeah, it is going to be tough to defend. But we have a month to prepare for it and get everything down, so I am excited.”
The key now, Wilgar and Katoa said, is staying healthy and avoiding the COVID-19 virus that still threatens to derail the entire college football season.
“BYU has been excellent with all that stuff,” Wilgar said. “I feel safe. I am sure all the other players feel safe. BYU (staffers) have done a great job taking care of us.”
Said Lopini, who figures to be the starting running back now that Utah transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole has moved on to Utah State after signing with BYU last February: “Personally, I feel safe in my situation. I know that as players and as a whole staff and a program, it takes everybody to be safe and create a safe environment for us to be around. I feel like everybody is doing great at making sure we take the proper steps to ensure the health and safety of the people on our team and the staff. I feel good coming out every day knowing everybody is taking the proper steps and precautions.”
Having an early September opponent makes all that even better.