It took a different approach for BYU to land Timpview High’s four-star defensive lineman Logan Fano once he decommitted from a three-year-old pledge to sign at BYU.

Nine months ago, he’d just received offers from Oklahoma and Wisconsin, and others came from Washington, Utah, Arizona State and Michigan.

Then in March 2020, Kalani Sitake made a decision to shake things up. He’d been losing committed prospects like Siaki Ika, Brandon Kaho, Tyler Manoa and others. BYU found it tough to go against the bling and glamour of other programs and the constant criticism that BYU didn’t get players in the NFL.

Just after the COVID-19 pandemic hit nine months ago, Sitake decided to overhaul the face of his recruiting. He elevated Jasen Ah You to be in charge and made social media showman Jack Damuni his on-campus specialist.

Ah You brought a unique perspective as he stepped up to the challenge.

He knew what he was up against. He’d heard the anti-BYU pitches. But he was also the father of a highly recruited four-star linebacker, Chaz Ah You, and was well aware of the approach Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten schools took with kids.

Sitake approached Ah You around national signing day in January 2020 but didn’t finalize the move until that March. Ah You wanted to take a different approach than the other guys Sitake put in that position, Tevita Ofahengaue and Alema Fitisemanu, had taken. All three had worked in Utah’s football program at one time, and all were friends.

Ah You told Sitake, “I need to run the ship if I do it,” he said, knowing full well the time commitment for the new assignment would extract a price from him. The two had a back-and-forth. “My approach would be very different,” Ah You explained.

Sitake pulled the trigger just under 60 days after spring practice was canceled after six sessions.

Homegrown talent

“My whole thing has been recruiting with my son, being able to go to different schools, all the camps, all over the Midwest, from California to Oklahoma to Notre Dame to everywhere,” Ah You said. “Seeing the type of athletes that were out there, I really felt strongly that the Utah athlete is underrated.

“I believe that we can win a lot of big games with the Utah kids and for us, it is a niche”

Ah You reflected back to when his brothers Matt and CJ were recruited. There weren’t that many big-name kids who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but now almost every roster is littered with them.

“Unfortunately for us, the top ones have not come to BYU. They’ve chosen other places and other areas. With Chaz, I could see why guys get caught up, young men get caught up in Power Five conferences,” he said. “They’re looking at those facilities and they’re looking at the bling and all this money and fancy locker rooms and they’re getting swayed, and these teams are winning.

“I was like, hold up. We’re playing a lot of P5 teams on our schedule every year but we’re not in a P5 conference. We need P5 kids to win and we can do this if we attract the right kids that can come to BYU. A) we’ve got to win the battle, and B) we’ve got to get the kids to come to BYU and sprinkle them in with more of our skilled position players who are non-LDS. We want to win the recruiting battle in Utah.”

Related
Analysis: Factor in returning missionaries and preferred walk-ons, and BYU’s No. 73-ranked football recruiting haul is better than it looks

Ah You believes BYU made good strides in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic preventing any on-campus visits. 

“I’m thrilled with this class because a lot of those guys came in March. I told Kalani back in March we were two years behind on the recruiting game with a lot of the 2021 kids.”

Behind?

Yes, there is a game to be played.

Ah You kept every piece of recruiting mail sent to his son Chaz over the years, many coming way before he ever made a decision to sign at BYU. “He’s got four years worth, a big stack. It is a simple but important thing. I’ve seen what the kids are seeing, how many pieces of mail they get, and I wondered how many we were sending.”

Ah You approached Dave Broberg, creative services director for BYU’s athletic department, inquiring how many pieces of mail were being sent to prospects from the department.  Broberg told Ah You he hadn’t had that much demand for it from the recruiting coordinator, maybe a couple each month.

“You know,” Ah You answered, “We have to have at least three a week. That greeting mail means a lot, it says, ‘They know me. They love me. They want me. They are showing me love. They are showing interest in me,’” explained Ah You. “Thanks to Dave Broberg and his work, that was the first part of my philosophy to get that turned around. The second was to push The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I don’t know if I wanted to go as strong as Bronco (Mendenhall) did, even though I really agreed with his message and it really resonated with me. I think we can still push that message, but I felt like, and it was me personally, that we hadn’t pushed the church or BYU or the spiritual side of being here as much as we could have in the last few years. That’s my own personal opinion. I don’t know if that’s what it looked like on the outside, but to me, that’s who we are.” — Jasen Ah You

Keeping the faith

“I don’t know if I wanted to go as strong as Bronco (Mendenhall) did, even though I really agreed with his message and it really resonated with me,” Ah You explained. “I think we can still push that message, but I felt like, and it was me personally, that we hadn’t pushed the church or BYU or the spiritual side of being here as much as we could have in the last few years. That’s my own personal opinion. I don’t know if that’s what it looked like on the outside, but to me, that’s who we are.

“It’s very attractive for LDS kids and a place to come that’s safe. There’s no place like BYU, especially for LDS kids. It cannot be replicated where there are more than 30,000 students who are members of your faith walking around, in your classroom, everywhere.”

And that is what Ah You believes BYU recruiting has to sell: a feeling.

“You need to feel BYU to know what it is.”

Jeff Hansen tracks BYU recruiting for 247Sports network and saw a quick response from prospects exposed to Ah You’s approach.

Related
BYU’s 2021 football recruiting class lacks quantity, but not quality

“Jasen’s philosophy has been a really interesting switch from where BYU has spent the last few years,” said Hansen. “It has felt like BYU has almost shied away from the fact that they are a church school with certain recruits in the past several years — perhaps fearing that it could scare people away. But Jasen has come into the program and changed that philosophy immediately. In his mind, there is no better place than BYU if you’re a member of the church.

“While BYU’s status in the college football landscape can be debated, Jasen contends that what BYU can do for someone off the field is second to none. He embraces the honor code. He embraces the things that make BYU different, and he is willing to make that the focal point of his pitch to recruits,” Hansen continued. “It’s a message that won’t resonate with everyone, but it is clearly having an impact on players like Logan Fano, Elia and Enoka Migao, and other big-time prospects who happen to be members of the church in future classes. It’s a different approach than we’ve seen from BYU for a few years, but if early returns are any indication, it’s an approach that could pay off big in the long run.”

A father’s perspective

Ah You had a front-row seat to recruiting as a father.

“I will reflect back on why my son chose BYU. Obviously, he had a ton of offers, but he simply said that it was the guys in the locker room. It was the guys he was gonna be around as his teammates. He said that’s who he felt most comfortable with and I think that’s a big selling point, to be with character guys who will help you try and be better.

“Someone just wrote an article highlighting that we have 73 missionaries on our team. I think that number is a little low. I think there are actually more, but there are 37 out there in the field serving now and for me as a father that was very comforting to me to know the type of people they are.”

Ah You compared recruiting athletes who are Latter-day Saints to a “pre score.” They come with different cases. 

“There are some who are very strong in the church, some who are struggling with their testimonies, and others who are less active as church members. They don’t have to be perfect,” Ah You said. “They just have to strive and I think that’s a great selling point as a parent, the idea of where they want their children to be the next five years. We don’t have to be scared to mention the church or the gospel or who we are.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise and that we balance faith in what we do on and off the field. And we need to use it in graphics, social media and letters in our approach because that’s who we are. So let’s be right at the forefront of who we are and why we are different. I think it’s resonating with a lot of guys that just signed here for us and I think it is a great message and that’s going to keep going in the years to come.”

Timpview High School football player Logan Fano speaks during a signing day event at the school in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Fano is headed to BYU. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Landing Fano

Ah You was not involved in recruiting except a little thing here and there the past four years on campus. He was an academic adviser. He doesn’t criticize those who had the recruiting coordinator job before him, saying they all had their strong points and successes.

He said he advises recruits to take other trips and compare. “I’m not afraid to compare what we have. I ask them to go and experience what others have because I know what they will feel if they come here.”  Fano did that immediately after he decommitted to BYU in January 2019 and took an unofficial trip to Michigan.

One day, Ah You asked Fano’s father about any concerns he experienced from BYU. Ah You served with Fano’s father on a stake high council of the church in Utah County.

Ah You was told, “I just didn’t feel the love from BYU. I didn’t hear from the coaches. I’d go to the mailbox and get mail from schools all over the country, but not BYU.

“That doesn’t seem like a big thing but it is a huge deal to kids, to feel the love, that’s how they interpret it. All these guys want is to feel the love. I never want a recruit to tell me they wanted to come to BYU, but I just didn’t get the look or feel the love.”

Ah You reached out to Fano when he became recruiting coordinator and told him he knew he was behind the eight ball, but BYU was going to sign him. “That was my launcher.”

Ah You said he was going to swing hard, going to shoot his shot and he’d have some tough decisions ahead of him but his job as recruiting coordinator was to make it very difficult for him to say no. “I wanted him to feel it.”

NFL aspirations

Ah You doesn’t want to sell recruits, doesn’t want to convince recruits and doesn’t want to have to persuade them. 

“I want them to feel what BYU is all about. Honestly, the negative recruiting used against us is that we don’t send players to the NFL, so if they want to go to the NFL don’t go to BYU.”

Ah You has to counter those claims with the fact that BYU has the opportunity of playing against Tennessee, USC, Washington, Michigan, Michigan State, Texas and Stanford on national TV.

And as for the NFL, he believes, as a developmental program, Sitake has proven he can take the raw talent, develop it and make players attractive for the next level. His prime example is Zach Wilson, projected to be a first round quarterback, the second or third taken at the position in the 2021 draft. Wilson’s entire college career was in BYU’s system with Aaron Roderick.

Related
How BYU’s baby-faced, headband-wearing, fun-loving quarterback has soared up NFL draft boards

Along with the Wilson story are former walk-ons like running back Tyler Allgeier and receiver Dax Milne, both of whom went over 1,000 yards this season. Offensive tackle Brady Christensen was just named a first-team All-American.

“So, honestly, you have to cast a vision of what you can do for them on and off the field in developing as a person and player,” Ah You said. “We took our lumps as a program investing in developing players, playing freshmen like Zach, seeing our young players make mistakes in losses. But we recruited the metrics, took on the development and it paid off this year as many became sophomores with experience.”

It is unknown right now if the NCAA will allow in-person recruiting home and campus visits, which are currently restricted to virtual online contact. The on-campus, personal contact is something Ah You has yet to direct, be in charge of or experience, but he’s looking forward to the challenge.

Ah You is grateful that athletic director Tom Holmoe and BYU’s administration gave players an opportunity to play 12 games, including a bowl win against UCF. “Our boys were ready to play. It was a blessing, a magical year, and we need to keep this thing rolling.”