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Only three seniors on an entire BYU football roster? Cougars open spring practices, but they aren’t really that young

Defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua and safety Jared Kapisi are the only seniors from 2020 who chose to take an ‘extra year,’ but BYU is still classifying last year’s juniors as juniors in 2021 to reflect the idea that their eligibility was frozen in 2020

BYU football players run through drills during the first day of spring football practices at the indoor facility in Provo, Utah, on Monday, March 1, 2021.
BYU Photo

Calling any BYU football team “young” is a stretch, considering roughly two-thirds of the players any given year have served two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But the 121-player roster the Cougars distributed Monday as the first of 15 spring practices began in Provo includes only three players designated as seniors: safety Jared Kapisi, defensive end Uriah Leiataua and Mufi Hill-Hunt.

Kapisi and Leiataua are the only guys who were seniors last year who are taking advantage of the “extra year” granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hill-Hunt is a graduate transfer offensive lineman from Taylorsville High who was at Michigan State for three years and Utah for two but still has a year of eligibility remaining.

What about returning starters who were juniors last year, stars such as running back Lopini Katoa and receiver Gunner Romney? For now, they are listed as redshirt-juniors, or simply juniors, as if the 2020 season never happened.

Don’t be confused. Head coach Kalani Sitake said in a Zoom meeting with reporters after Monday’s practice at the Indoor Practice Facility — too cold to go outside, quarterback Jaren Hall duly noted — that everything will be sorted out later.

Sitake said most of the seniors last year had decided by midseason when the Cougars were getting most, if not all, of their games in that they were moving on.

“I think the fact that we played 12 games made a big difference,” he said. “A lot of guys had already graduated. A lot of them were ready to move on to the next level and move on to the next phase of life, and we are good with that.”

Leiataua said it was an easy decision for him to return because he has sustained so many injuries throughout his career he never really got in a complete season. He fractured his leg last season, after getting his degree last April.

“I think it would be a different story if those guys only had five or six games,” Sitake said. “Then they probably would have come back. But playing 12 games, I think it was really fulfilling for them.”

In Bill Connelly’s calculations for ESPN, BYU enters the new season ranked 127th out of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in returning production. Only 31% of BYU’s overall production from its 11-1 season in 2020 is back.

On defense, it is only 16%.

Sitake said he doesn’t want to worry about that now. Save that for the fall, he said.

This spring, the goal is to play as much football as possible and identity which players have what it takes to replace the likes of quarterback Zach Wilson, receiver Dax Milne, offensive lineman Brady Christensen and defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga — 2020 stars who will likely be on NFL rosters this fall.

“I can tell you I am really excited by what I saw on Day 1,” he said. “We will see how the competitions go and position battles and everything go, but I thought it was a clean day and a lot of guys are obviously seasoned and have a lot of experience under their belts.”

Of course, all eyes are the four-way quarterback competition, as redshirt sophomores Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney and freshmen Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters duel to replace Wilson.

“Yeah, they can throw,” Sitake said. “I saw a lot of good throws today. You can tell there is a (quarterback) competition going on; Guys weren’t shy to throw the ball down the field, and I was really pleased with the targets they were throwing to. The guys caught the ball really well.”

Hall, who is not playing baseball this year so he can give his body a rest and focus solely on winning the QB derby, called his competitors “a group of studs” and said the next 14 practices, or 13 practices and a spring game, “are going to be fun.”

At least one quarterback from last year’s roster, freshman Mason Fakahua of Cedar City, has moved to running back, Sitake confirmed. Tight end Donovan Hanna, who played for former BYU quarterback Max Hall in high school in Arizona, has moved to offensive line although he is listed at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds.

Sitake said more position shuffling could come later, especially as new offensive line coach Darrell Funk and new linebackers coach Kevin Clune get settled in and familiar with their personnel.

“And then the DBs can play anything,” Sitake said. “They can play nickel or safety or corner. So you are going to see a lot of movement there. We will play around with some things. The goal every year is to try to get the best 11 on the field, and we are going to try to do that, and also give some guys some looks and try to create some depth.”