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Why Kalani Sitake puts a premium on strength tests as BYU spring football begins

BYU begins spring football drills with hopes the Cougars are physically stronger in the trenches

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake applauds an extra point during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
BYU’s Kalani Sitake opens up spring camp on Monday.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The big chatter around BYU’s spring football that begins on Monday centers around the quarterback position — just as it has for eons.

Natural as can be.

But it doesn’t matter who that guy is if Kalani Sitake doesn’t win battles in the trenches on both sides of the line. His defense lost Khyiris Tonga in the middle and his offense lost Brady Christensen and Tristen Hoge. Other key bodies will be gone, like Chandon Herring and linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi.

So, the pretty boy race — the candidates in the QB room — will receive top headlines the next 15 practices as daily updates, reports, and interviews are spread out among media outlets.

But if there is no bark where the fight gets done, it won’t matter who gets the hike from center.

This is why it is crucial that Sitake get new offensive line coach Darrell Funk plugged in while earning trust with returning players. He needs to create the ability to push and mold them as effectively as Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos did during Zach Wilson’s fabulous 2020 year.

Funk has only been with the staff for two weeks. He’s described by insiders as a coach with a very calm, confident demeanor. He’s had experience in all kinds of offenses but on his very first day at BYU, he’ll already have a working knowledge of the Cougar offense and what coordinator Aaron Roderick wants to have happen in 15 practices.

One of Sitake’s first priorities, when he took the BYU job after working with Kyle Whittingham at Utah and Oregon State, was emphasizing size and strength.

He knew if BYU was to compete against the likes of USC, Stanford, Michigan State, Arizona, Arizona State and Washington, the Cougars would need to transition from the sleek, extra mobile, spread blockers that Robert Anae tried to utilize from his days at Texas Tech, to big, strong, lengthy, powerful bodies that could dish as well as take.

And that goes for the defensive line, too.

In the past two seasons, Sitake got more of that on BYU’s lines. But he knew it was a work in progress, that standards had to be set, players challenged, the weak get strong. He knew his big body players had to build a foundation, from the legs and core up to the arms and chest.

This spring will be no different.

Ever since BYU’s team left the Boca Raton Bowl with a dominating performance in the 2020 finale, strength and conditioning staff members have been pushing, listing, setting goals and testing.

And that comes to the point in Sitake’s preamble to spring drill that may have been lost in all the QB chatter we heard on Friday as the media clamored to get the latest on who will challenge to replace Wilson.

He knows he’s going to need a strong, physical run game to keep pressure off that replacement, that he’s going to need time, grow in confidence with blockers and protections. He knows if he tweaks his defense without Tonga on the front line, he’s going to need impact players who can take on the weight, break down protection and make plays while clearing lanes for linebackers to finish things.

Several times, Sitake referenced testing that had taken place with players leading up to Monday’s opening spring session.

These tests are a metering system to tell staff how close on track the strength program is to meeting both baseline performance and top-end lifting abilities. Along with that is agility measurables, speed, flexibility and reaction times.

“Our approach to the weight room is a little different this spring. We tested last week and our testing was really, really good. We changed up our workout regime. I think we’re doing some things a little more specialized. We know where to push and who needs to get strength gains,” Sitake said.

“There are some guys who are very strong and I don’t know how much stronger you can get them. You could look at their flexibility to help maintain their stability in the sport. We’ve utilized a lot of the sports science in our workouts.”

If you read between the lines, Sitake is subtle about what tweaks his conditioning program is making to evolve from what’s been done to something more. He is transitioning foundational strength work with speciality work — that linemen don’t need to do what defensive backs are doing, et cetera.

Now, of course, that’s a given. But these tweaks can always get more intense, more specialized, more effective with research. It is evolution he has embraced.

Sitake said he is really excited about a group of walkons who joined the program in January. “I’m just telling you guys,” Sitake said in his preamble to the report. “They are really, really good. They are big boys, and the numbers we got from our testing last week? I’m really excited to see them get out and compete.” Those, along with returning players and those back from missions, have Sitake optimistic.

Sitake said the testing revealed players made strength gains during the season, maintained that strength, and then added to it the past two months.

“I feel much better where we are. We are not that far off,” he said, after losing the likes of Christensen and Tonga and others.

The QB derby will be the marquee story the next 15 days and the four candidates will be whittled down until meaningful reps can be managed for the top two. The QB who starts moving the chains, throws TDs, and consistently makes plays will separate himself even if no starter is named until fall. The players and coaches will know who that is.

So, there are those soundbites coming, quotes about the competition and concentration and work among all four.

But the real work of the 2021 Cougars will be in the trenches and how physically the big guys apply their tradecraft.

Look for that.