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Rebuilding or reloading? BYU football players prefer the latter, but few outsiders expect Cougars to repeat 2020’s success

BYU opened 2021 spring camp with only 31% of its production from the 2020 season returning, which ranks dead last, 127th, in the Football Bowl Subdivision

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BYU offensive lineman James Empey, shown here posing in an October 2018 photo, chose to return for his senior season in 2021, but several other Cougars, including fellow OL Brady Christensen and quarterback Zach Wilson, entered the NFL draft.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A persistent little theme began to emerge last Monday night after BYU’s first spring practice as head coach Kalani Sitake, quarterback Jaren Hall, defensive end Uriah Leiataua and offensive lineman James Empey met with reporters via Zoom to discuss the opening of spring football camp.

For some reason, these guys feel like they have something to prove — again.

Outside expectations of the program’s sudden demise, or inability to duplicate last year’s 11-1 season and No. 11 final national ranking, are being greatly exaggerated, they say.

“Those guys last year had a huge chip on their shoulder and they went out and proved themselves. Now it is the same for us. It is no different. Every year, you gotta go out and prove yourself. Nothing is ever given,” redshirt sophomore Hall said.

Said Leiataua, who graduated last April but returned for another go-round because he fractured his leg in fall camp last August: “We are not trying to rebuild. We are trying to reload.”

“Those guys last year had a huge chip on their shoulder and they went out and proved themselves. Now it is the same for us. It is no different. Every year, you gotta go out and prove yourself. Nothing is ever given.” — BYU quarterback Jaren Hall

Trouble is, Sitake and his staff have huge holes to fill at almost every position, and face a daunting 2021 schedule — provided it is not wrecked by COVID-19 like last year’s was — that has some prognosticators calling for a return to mediocre seasons.

The predictions of a 6-6 season, or worse, “just remind you that you haven’t made it,” said Hall, in a four-way competition with Baylor Romney, Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters toreplace Zach Wilson as the Cougars’ starting quarterback. “You know, every year is new. You gotta start over, just like last year. It was the same thing. With the wonderful dudes we had on our team last year, they made huge plays for us, have now left us. They will be missed. It was the same thing for them.”

Only on special teams, where superb kicker Jake Oldroyd and strong-legged punter Ryan Rehkow return, does BYU figure to be better than it was last year.

ESPN’s Bill Connelly annually ranks all 127 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in terms of returning production on both sides of the ball, and this year he has BYU dead last — No. 127, at 31% returning. The Cougars are 117th on offense with 47% of its production from 2020 returning, but are 127th on defense, with 16% back.

The No. 126 defense, Georgia, has 39% of its production returning. The gap is that immense for a defense that loses all but a couple starters.

So the critics have their ammo. The numbers don’t lie. Then again, Empey has seen it before. Nobody in Provo is panicking, he said, recalling how few predicted Wilson’s rise in just one year from middling, injury-hampered sophomore to standout junior who played so well that he vaulted into consideration for a top-five NFL draft pick.

“Everybody is excited about the opportunity (to prove the doubters wrong),” he said. “You can look at everything however you want to. We choose to look at it as an opportunity to fill in and get better. It is an opportunity for young guys to step in and fill important roles, and we believe we got (the people) it takes to have a great season again and put something special together. We got the boys to do it, so that’s how we kinda feel about things. It is our opportunity to step up and step in.”

Along the offensive line, the biggest hole to fill is at left tackle, where NFL-bound Brady Christensen protected Wilson’s blindside most of the past three seasons. Third-year players Blake Freeland, 6-foot-8, and Harris LaChance, also 6-8, who resemble power forwards as much as they do O-linemen are the likely candidates to fill Christensen’s sizable shoes.

Veteran guard Keanu Saleapaga, former Lone Peak star Connor Pay and returning starter Clark Barrington join Empey in eyeing starting spots in 2021, replacing Tristen Hoge, Kieffer Longson and Chandon Herring, who also moved on.

“Man, first, those guys were great players and they were so fun to play with, and they did great things,” Empey said. “But I think we got a lot of good guys coming up, and I am confident in the boys that we have. And so I don’t know how you will be able to (gauge) a drop-off. We have the boys to do it, and I am confident in them.”

Sitake, who has made building depth in the trenches a priority since he replaced Bronco Mendenhall in 2016, said outgoing OL coach Eric Mateos left new OL coach Darrell Funk plenty of talent with which to work.

“If you look at the number of guys who have played and have started, I think we are going to be fine,” Sitake said. “If we can get some guys healthy, we are going to be OK. From what I saw from our three groups of O linemen (in practice Monday), I am excited about them.”

As for the QB race, Hall said all the starting candidates learned a lot from watching Wilson operate last fall, and having Aaron Roderick remain the QBs coach will be a definite plus.

“I have no expectations,” said Hall, who reiterated that he won’t be playing baseball this spring, as the Deseret News reported last month. “I just go out and control what I can, because at the end of the day it is not something I decide. That is for the coaches to do, rightfully so. We just go out and compete and do our best and when the time comes for them to make that decision, they will.”