Quarterback derby and 4 other storylines to follow as rebuilding Cougars open spring camp
BYU coach Kalani Sitake promises plenty of football will be played the next four weeks as the Cougars begin to rebuild.
They went 11-1 to post one of the best football seasons in school history, finished No. 11 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, appeared on national television beating up on another overmatched opponent on almost a weekly basis and saw relatively unknown quarterback Zach Wilson rise to Heisman Trophy consideration and near-unanimous speculation that he will be one of the first few players taken in the NFL draft.
What will the BYU Cougars do for an encore in 2021?
That’s difficult to predict, but we will say this: If sixth-year head coach Kalani Sitake’s squad puts together another one-loss season against a killer schedule that includes Power Five schools Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, Baylor, Boise State, Washington State, Virginia and USC, it almost certainly will be a consensus top-10 team, and might even get invited to a bowl more prestigious and better-named than the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl.
“If there is a way to do it, we are going to try to get as many opportunities (as possible) for those four quarterbacks to show themselves in a game-type situation. If it gets narrowed down a little bit more towards the end of spring (great) — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
Last time we checked in with them, the Cougars walloped Central Florida 49-23 in that bowl and then watched as rising juniors Wilson, receiver Dax Milne and offensive lineman Brady Christensen declared early for the NFL draft and every senior except defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua bypassed an opportunity to return as allowed by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic shortening the schedule and messing with the experience.
That means that Sitake and his staff, without successful offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and gifted offensive line coach Eric Mateos, have a rebuilding job in front of them. The coach added two veterans to replace the Baylor-bound buddies, Kevin Clune as the new linebackers coach and Darrell Funk as the new OL coach.
The foundation for the project was laid with those hirings, but begins in earnest Monday when spring practices begin in Provo. Having gotten in only five sessions last year before the pandemic ended everything, the Cougars will shoot for the full 15 in March.
Sitake said Thursday that the hope is to have a spring game this year, perhaps the last Saturday in March (27th) at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Pro Day is March 26.
Until they get to that point, with the pandemic still a threat to alter everything on a moment’s notice, here are five storylines to follow during spring camp:
The four-way starting quarterback race to replace the great Zach Wilson
This could be categorized as storylines 1, 2, 3 and 4, as it will dominate headlines until a starter is named in the days leading up to the opener Sept. 4 against Arizona in Las Vegas. Two of the candidates are familiar faces — Baylor Romney and Jaren Hall won games for the Cougars in 2019 when Wilson was out with a fractured thumb — while the other two, freshmen Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, participated in practices last fall and dressed for home games.
Sitake said there’s a chance they will pare the race down before spring camp ends, but he seriously doubts they will name a starter before they absolutely have to.
“If there is a way to do it, we are going to try to get as many opportunities (as possible) for those four quarterbacks to show themselves in a game-type situation,” Sitake said. “… If it gets narrowed down a little bit more towards the end of spring (great). I just don’t know if we are going to have a decision by the end of spring. I don’t think it is fair to say that right now. And we don’t have to rush it right now.”
Wanted: A Dax Milne clone
Wilson wasn’t the only offensive star to seemingly come out of nowhere and post a fabulous season, or to move on a year early. Receiver Milne could almost be as hard to replace, having gone from walk-on in 2018 to superstar in 2020 with 70 catches for 1,188 yards and eight TDs.
Whoever wins the starting QB position will have returnees Gunner Romney (39 catches, 767 yards, two TDs) and Neil Pau’u (45 catches, 603 yards, four TDs) on the outside and tight end Isaac Rex (37 catches, 429 yards, 12 TDs) as capable weapons, but the competition to be the fourth primary pass-catcher on the field is wide-open.
Candidates include junior college transfer Chris Jackson, Texan Keanu Hill, oft-injured returnee Brayden Cosper and Kody Epps, a freshman in 2020 who didn’t quite live up to the hype accompanying him out of high school, due to COVID-19 issues, the stellar play of the receivers in front of him, and other reasons.
“Those were the four main guys in any given week throughout the fall that were ready to go,” receivers coach Fesi Sitake, who becomes the passing game coordinator this season, said in January. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to lean on a lot of those guys because Dax, Gunner and Neil were able to stay healthy. … So Neil and Gunner are definitely the staples, moving forward. And through spring and summer training and fall camp, we will see who emerges as those solid three and other guys who might be able to rotate in.”
Searching for some standout safeties
It seems like Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner were in the program forever — Anderson because he was granted some extra years of eligibility due to season-ending injuries and Warner because he started as a freshman — but the time has come for the Cougars to replace those team leaders at the all-important safety positions.
Sitake said there are a lot of candidates, and most will be given ample opportunities to show what they can do as the Cougars will play a lot of football, a lot of 11-on-11 sessions in pads, to identify the best in spring camp.
Who are the candidates?
At the top of the list is former four-star recruit Chaz Ah You, who sustained a season-ending injury in the opener against Navy last fall and is healthy now and ready to lead the defense. Also back are players with some experience playing safety, guys such as Hayden Livingston and Malik Moore.
Word is that the Cougars are scanning the transfer portal for an experienced safety, but options are limited, and so are scholarships.
Sitake mentioned Ah You, Moore, Livingston and Ammon Hannemann, a returned missionary who has struggled to stay healthy, as possible replacements for Anderson and Warner.
“I think we feel good about (replacements),” Sitake said. “We saw a lot of guys step up last year. So the room is full. There are a lot of guys there, and some of them have been hurt. … Those guys are going to need 15 practices, but we will figure it out. We will have the best out there playing, and if we have to move positions to get the best 11 out there, we will do that. And if we have to change schemes, we will.”
And the running backs shall lead them
Multi-year starters such as Isaiah Kaufusi, Bracken El-Bakri, Zac Dawe, Khyris Tonga and the aforementioned safeties on defense and Wilson, Milne, Christensen, tight end Matt Bushman and offensive linemen such as Tristen Hoge and Chandon Herring on offense have departed, leaving a bit of a leadership void in Provo.
But Sitake isn’t concerned. He said the new leaders “will sort themselves out” in spring camp, as almost always happens. Quarterbacks Hall and Romney are proven leaders, as is center James Empey.
Sitake said running backs Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier have emerged in winter workouts as leaders, and Katoa was a captain last year.
“The whole captain thing — if I could have, I would have named 30 captains last year,” Sitake said, perhaps alluding to outside concerns from NFL teams that Wilson wasn’t a leader because he wasn’t originally voted a captain lasts year.
“So, a lot of those (30) guys return, and they have taken off,” he continued. “Obviously something is working, because those guys are demanding a lot of each other and we are seeing a lot of really good results in the weight room right now, and they are looking really good. I can’t wait to get to Monday and we will see how they perform with the pads on after a couple weeks of the transition period with just helmets. So yeah, the leadership I think is going to be fine.”
Maintaining the momentum
No question, the 2020 season energized a fanbase that had grown weary of mediocre seasons. Now comes the hard part — building on that success that few saw coming, success that was probably more enabled by a less-than-spectacular schedule than most fans want to acknowledge.
The Cougars lost an awful lot of talent, on both sides of the ball. Only special teams was untouched by departures — kicker Jake Oldroyd and punter Ryan Rehkow are among the best in the country at their specialties.
Sitake’s most immediate concern is the trenches — the offensive and defensive lines that will need to be big, physical and stout against that array of P-5 schools hungry to put them back into their place in the college football world.
A lot is on the line for BYU football in 2021. Validating that 2020 success, or tarnishing it with more than three or four losses this fall, will turn into a storyline to watch all year.
In a way, the Cougars are starting all over, Sitake said.
“For the most part, we have to work on the fundamentals of football first (this spring), establish our identity, what we want to get done as an offense and defense, and then we can kind of tweak it to the talent that is on the field, and utilize the skillsets we have,” he said. “I don’t want to make statements. We are going to do as much as we can to score points on offense and stop them on defense. … If we do that, we have a chance to be good.”
His mentor, LaVell Edwards, couldn’t have said it any better.