Rebuilding BYU says it ‘got better’ in spring camp; how much better is anyone’s guess
Cougars didn’t conduct a public spring game, practice or scrimmage this year, so a bit of mystery surrounds the progress they made as they go about replacing Zach Wilson and several other key starters on both sides of the ball
Any analysis of BYU’s recently completed spring football camp has to come with at least one caveat.
None of the 15 practices conducted during four weeks in March — four the first, second and fourth weeks and three the third week — were open to the general public nor the media. It was easily the most closed-off, private and secretive spring camp in recent memory, perhaps ever, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and cancellation of a final, public practice scheduled for LaVell Edwards Stadium.
To their credit, the Cougars did send out plenty of photos and video clips of the action, and players and coaches were made available to reporters at least twice a week via Zoom. But for the second-straight year, BYU had no spring game.
“I know a lot of people want to see our team get out there and run around, but if we are being honest, it would have been really generic,” sixth-year coach Kalani Sitake told reporters after the 15th and final practice concluded at the Indoor Practice Facility.
“It is starting to take shape, but I am going to meet with each of those guys and talk about how we are going to go forward. There will still be some competition in the fall for sure. We are not ready to name a starter yet. We will go, I would say, at least a week to 10 days in the fall before we make any decisions like that.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick on the Cougars’ starting quarterback derby.
Then Sitake hinted why the public practice at Lavell Edwards Stadium was really canceled, after a BYU news release said it was because of expected inclement weather. Reading between the lines, it was more about privacy than precaution.
“We are probably not going to show everything we can do,” he said. “And that is not just unique to us. If (other teams) are showing their spring game, they are not going to put out all the stuff they are really good at, or all the stuff they are going to focus on in the fall. They are trying to keep that competitive advantage.”
Sitake said he didn’t want the last practice to feel like “a wasted practice,” so they kept it private, and were able to work on a lot of schemes, strategies and formations that they will run this fall without having to worry about secrets getting out.
“I really thought it was more important to use the practice to get better as a team and that our offense needs to get out there and execute plays and do what we will do actually against Arizona (on Sept. 4 in Las Vegas) and what we are doing in the 2021 season,” he said. “It was nice to have our defense do everything as well. We have got some young guys that need to work on that, and not a lot of practices to waste.”
Sitake apologized to fans who wanted to watch a game or scrimmage.
“But they will be thankful we did that when it comes to the fall,” he said.
Quarterback competition taking shape
Speaking of keeping competitive advantages, that’s one of the reasons BYU hasn’t been in a hurry to name a starting quarterback to replace Zach Wilson, who performed spectacularly at BYU’s pro day on March 26. Sitake and new offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick both that Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney, Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters are still in the mix.
“It is starting to take shape, but I am going to meet with each of those guys (this) week and talk about how we are going to go forward,” Roderick said. “There will still be some competition in the fall for sure. We are not ready to name a starter yet. We will go, I would say, at least a week to 10 days in the fall before we make any decisions like that.”
A source familiar with the final week of practices told the Deseret News that Hall and Romney got more reps than the other two the last few practices of camp, for what that’s worth.
Roderick has said all along there’s value in keeping the starter a secret, and Sitake agreed but didn’t rule out making the decision a lot sooner. Whether they will make public that decision remains to be seen.
Hall concurred, saying the offense has plenty of other leaders and players are mature enough to not let the uncertainty divide the locker room.
“Right now, (opponents) have to watch film on a bunch of different guys. There is an advantage there. But as soon as we know what guy has earned it, then we will try to make that decision right away,” Sitake said. “Hopefully we can get that done as soon as possible. Knowing that we have time leading up to the first game, that decision doesn’t have to be made right now, fortunately. The quarterbacks are playing so well right now.”
Romney, who has the most game experience, said is “not that important” to find out who will be the starter.
“I like what is going on,” he said. “It makes all of us compete. It makes all of us stay on our toes in a sense and really do our best each and every day and work as hard as we possibly can. … Whatever the coaches decide in the fall is their decision to be made.”
“I think collectively we got a lot better,” said Hall, whose play has been limited by concussions and a hip injury. “I mean, in 15 practices, there is a lot that you can learn from, a lot you can grow from. I think each of us showed out and did what we do best. We had fun and made each other better and so it was a good spring and I think we will be in good hands come fall.”
What we learned about the offense
Romney didn’t beat around the bush. Asked after the final practice — which included plenty of 11-on-11 scrimmaging with the ones going against the ones — which unit got the upper hand that day and throughout camp, he pointed to his side of the ball.
“Of course, I am going to say the offense,” he said. “I mean, the defense, they are doing some really good stuff. There are a lot of good players and coaches on that side of the ball. I would tell you guys that it went back and forth, but I think we got the best of them more than they got the best of us.”
Help is on the way in the form of the Nacua brothers, Utah’s Samson and Washington’s Puka. Both receivers are transferring to BYU. Receivers Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u, tight end Isaac Rex and running back Tyler Allgeier had strong camps.
Kade Moore, a walk-on receiver from Lehi, made an immediate impact. Junior college transfer Chris Jackson also made a case for a starting spot.
“I don’t expect there to be any drop-off from the offense we had last year,” Baylor Romney said. “There are tons of players who can make big plays at every single position. I don’t think there will be any difference in our offense from last year to this year.”
That’s a bold proclamation, after Wilson led BYU’s offense last year to new heights. Sitake said Roderick seamlessly moved into the OC’s chair, while new offensive line coach Darrell Funk arrived having already learned the playbook and the terminology used by the former OL coach Eric Mateos and didn’t change a single word.
“It is going to take work, and it is going to take humility. We haven’t arrived. We haven’t done anything yet.” — Kalani Sitake
“It is going to take work, and it is going to take humility,” Sitake said. “We haven’t arrived. We haven’t done anything yet.
“We gotta find a quarterback that is going to be the best out of the bunch and then rally around him. But in every other position we have got to find a way to get better, and make sure that we are ready to go when we get to Vegas and play that first game.
“From what I saw in spring, I am really excited with the hunger I saw in these guys’ eyes,” he said. “The guys are ready to prove something.”
With one of the starting running backs, Lopini Katoa, limited by what he could do, converted receiver Miles Davis stepped in and showed some of the speed and shiftiness that earned him some playing time last season, teammates said.
“We have had a good spring. We got a lot of good work done,” Roderick said. “We have to replace some good players, everybody knows that. But I feel like we have got a lot of depth and we have a chance to be a really good offense.”
Analysts say BYU lost more offensive production than any Football Bowl Subdivision team in the country. Also gone are three starters on an offensive line that was simply dominant in 2020 and helped Allgeier rush for 1,130 yards.
Coming out of spring camp, probable starters on the O line appear to Blake Freeland, Clark Barrington, James Empey, Connor Pay and Harris LaChance. Sitake mentioned that sophomore Brayden Keim had a good camp and “is going to be a good player here,” while Joe Tukuafu, Keanu Saleapaga and Mo Unutoa didn’t do much in camp due to injury but should be able to contribute in backup roles this fall.
What we learned about the defense
Defensive coaches were not made available to reporters as often as offensive coaches throughout spring camp, but midway through the month Sitake said he was pleased with the “competitive balance” between the offense and defense and said there was “good back and forth” when he conducted scrimmages and 11-on-11 competitions.
“No one side dominated,” Sitake said.
That should come as good news for fans of defense, because the Cougars have a lot more question marks on that side of the ball, with three starting defensive linemen, two starting linebackers, one starting corner and both starting safeties moving on from the 2020 team that finished No. 10 in total defense (317.4 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring defense (15.3 points per game).
Also, another starting corner, freshman Micah Harper, sustained a major injury that required surgery and almost certainly won’t be back in time for the 2021 opener against Arizona.
You can’t blame Khyiris Tonga, Zac Dawe, Bracken El-Bakri, Isaiah Kaufusi, Kavika Fonua, Chris Wilcox, Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner for moving on when they could have come back via the NCAA’s “extra year” ruling due to the pandemic, but they leave some major holes.
Some 2021 opponents, such as Utah, won’t lose a single defensive contributor because of the waiver.
“They probably have the same amount of returning guys as we had guys finish games,” Sitake said. “So I think if you are looking at production, we had a lot of guys that got valuable reps. … We are going to have to develop our players to be in that position to battle those guys. That’s something that we need to prove. We have a lot of work to do. But yeah, we will use that. That is going to be a great motivator for us.”
Sitake said spring ball showed that linebacker will be the strength of the defense in 2021, with Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley and Keenan Pili back.
Tooley fielded the same upper-hand question that Romney did, but answered it a bit differently.
“Pretty close competition,” Tooley said. “One day the offense would come out and maybe put a little work on us, and the next day we would get after them. Even throughout the day, we would win a certain period or drill, and then the offense would take over the next period or drill. It was always competitive, offense and defense always going at it.”
Tooley said the defense struggled to stop the stars such as Baylor Romney, Pau’u, Rex and the more experienced QBs.
“It was pretty evenly matched, though,” he said. “There was never one day where one side really dominated. … I mean, there are so many threats on our offense. They all do what they do well. They are all studs.”
Growing the beast
Add it all up, and it appears that the Cougars made significant strides in March. Just getting in 15 practices, when they got in only five last year before the pandemic hit, should be seen as a victory, and a vital steppingstone toward a schedule that figures to be much, much more difficult.
Coaches and players cringed when the word “rebuilding” was mentioned after an 11-1 season left them with a No. 11 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 college football poll, their best ranking since finishing No. 5 in 1996.
They like to think they are “reloading,” in the words of one of the few seniors who returned, defensive end Uriah Leiataua, but coming anywhere close to an 11-win season against the likes of Utah, Boise State, Washington State, Baylor, Virginia and USC won’t be easy.
“If we can stay healthy and stay hungry, we have a chance to be a good football team,” Sitake said. “I just want to keep developing this program, keep developing this thing into the beast that I think it can be.”
If that takes practicing behind closed doors, then so be it.