Former hot-shot recruit Jacob Conover emerged as the probable backup quarterback, Cal transfer running back Chris Brooks was as good as advertised, veterans picked up some tips on how to run player-run practices, almost everybody stayed healthy and young guys got a lot of reps, especially on defense.

That pretty much sums up 2022 spring football camp for the BYU Cougars, who return 18 of 22 starters on offense/defense and all their specialists from the team that went 10-3 last fall and knocked off six Power Five opponents.

It all means that BYU’s final season as a college football independent should be a successful one, coach Kalani Sitake said Thursday before adding, “if we can stay healthy.”

So far, so good, as only freshman defensive end Logan Fano suffered a probable season-ending injury in March over the course of 15 practices. A few other guys got banged up enough to cause them to miss a practice here or there, but nothing serious.

“There are a lot fewer question marks regarding who will play where and all that. We feel like the talent is there on both sides of the ball to have a really good year.” — BYU receiver Gunner Romney

“We are excited to close out spring ball,” Sitake said after the 15th practice was held at the outdoor practice field behind the Student Athlete Building before the Cougars headed over to LaVell Edwards Stadium to watch former quarterback Max Hall lead Team Navy to a narrow victory over Sitake’s own Team Royal in an Alumni Game event that was enjoyed by almost everyone and likely to be a spring staple for years to come.

“We will have time off in April, and then let these guys finish up some final (exams),” he continued. “We are looking forward to having them run player-run practices and meetings and seeing how much we can improve from now until August.”

Aside from the aforementioned, there weren’t a lot of major storylines or questions heading into spring camp, unlike a year ago when the Cougars were scrambling to replace NFL draftees Zach Wilson, Dax Milne, Brady Christensen, Chris Wilcox, Khyiris Tonga and a bunch of other starters. They were also breaking in a couple new position coaches, linebackers coach Kevin Clune and offensive line coach Darrell Funk.

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In that regard, they hit the ground running in spring camp 2022, and expect more of the same in fall camp 2022.

“There are a lot fewer question marks regarding who will play where and all that,” star receiver Gunner Romney said. “We feel like the talent is there on both sides of the ball to have a really good year.”

What’s next?

Sitake said there will still be an emphasis on getting guys healthy, as starters such as linebackers Payton Wilgar, Keenan Pili, Max Tooley and Chaz Ah You missed most or all of camp recovering from surgeries performed last fall.

“And then we will continue getting our depth ready,” he said, referring to second- and third-stringers who will be counted on to step up in the fall when some starters invariably go down. Injuries are a big part of college football for all teams, but they especially seem to dog the Cougars.

“Everybody can improve and get better,” Sitake said. “But we are going to try to get the weakest line on our team as strong as possible.”

The Cougars were established enough throughout spring that they even got some work in preparing for the opener on Sept. 3 against South Florida.

“Yeah, a couple of times throughout spring we would scheme up and do some things (to prep for the Bulls), going back to film from their last couple of years,” starting quarterback Jaren Hall said. “So, a decent amount. … We got a head start, I would like to think, a couple practices where we ran a couple periods based on their defense. It was good to just have a focus on the game and remember why we are in spring ball.”

Another pre-camp goal was to maintain the fire, energy and enthusiasm that back-to-back 10-win seasons brought to the program, but not forget the bitter sting that 31-28 loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl brought to end of the season.

“These guys love each other. They are not happy with how the season ended, and you saw it in the way that they approached the offseason,” Sitake said. “Spring ball, there is a little bit more attention to detail. You can tell we have a bunch of veterans here and they did a great job getting the young guys ready.”

There were a few position changes, but not as many as in past spring camps. Cornerback Micah Harper is playing safety now, for instance, and defensive end Pepe Tanuvasa is back at linebacker.

There are cries from some to add a more experienced quarterback to the offense, or a top-flight rush end to a defense that still seems to need more playmakers. But the most recent addition out of the transfer portal is a defensive back — graduate transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally of Austin, Texas, by way of Vanderbilt.

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“Gabe has a lot of experience playing in the SEC for the last few years,” Sitake said. “He is a very smart player and a really strong student. He is going to be a great fit in our secondary and with our program.”

Sitake said Thursday what he always says at this time of year when he’s always asked if coaches will look to the transfer portal for more help before fall camp opens at the start of August. They will, but not out of desperation.

“We have a good track record, but I don’t know if we are going to make a living signing half our class out of the transfer portal,” he said. “But if they are a fit and know how to perform and how to behave here, then that is going to be someone we take a look at.”

Running backs coach Harvey Unga said the portal is so crowded nowadays, and landing spots so few, that portal guys are now calling coaches and selling themselves. 

Speaking of which, BYU has now lost 10 players to the portal since the season ended, most recently running back Sione Finau and linebacker Viliami Tausinga. Sitake said fans should expect more after coaches conduct exit interviews with players and tell them exactly where they stand within the program.

“Depth-wise we are going to be fine. We are going to add some new guys that we signed that are going to be here this spring and this summer and see how they can add to our quality and depth, but also compete for playing time,” Sitake said.

All eyes on the quarterback

For the first time in recent memory, BYU didn’t have a starting quarterback competition in spring camp. That job was Hall’s from the get-go. By all accounts, the fifth-year junior didn’t disappoint, looking sharp and in command of the offense almost every rep he got.

“Having a returner at any of your big playmaker positions is huge for an offense, not to mention our entire offensive line is back,” Hall said. “With that comes a greater grasp on the offense for everybody. There is more control and command, not just from the quarterback.”

He said when the first-stringers were together in 11-on-11 situations, they excelled.

“In our case with our experienced receivers, tight ends and O-line, everyone takes command of their job and holds each other accountable,” Hall said. “So I think that alone has put us quite a bit ahead of last spring ball. We have a lot to look forward to this fall.”

Hall, who was involved with a three-way battle for the starting spot with Conover and the retired Baylor Romney at this time last year, said he will use the remainder of spring and all summer to become a more well-rounded quarterback in all aspects of his game, physically and mentally.

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“There are a lot of the smaller things I will be working on, just depending on the day and the week,” he said.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said after the third-to-last spring practice that Conover had “separated himself” from other backup candidates Cade Fennegan and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters. Thursday, Sitake confirmed that decision to name Conover QB2 on the depth chart, but also said Fennegan “was hampered with some injuries” and not completely healthy. He spoke as if there is still time for the Boise State transfer to make a move.

“Jacob did some really good things. Decision-making was a key for him, and I think he has a very aggressive mindset,” Sitake said of Conover. “He is just getting experience and seeing where he can test the limits and seeing what the safest thing is and the best result for our team. He is starting to understand that, and it is good having someone like Jaren to watch. Jaren takes good care of the football and makes great decisions for us.”

Having had a front-row seat to the backup QB competition the past month, Hall said the Cougars would be “absolutely and without a doubt” OK if they have to go to their bench for quarterback relief.

“I have watched a couple of those guys for two or three years now. They all look good. Anybody who came out to watch could see those guys have learned the offense really quickly, especially the young guys,” he said. “They take control as if they are the guy out there. That’s the mentality in our quarterback room, so we will be good this fall, whatever happens.”

What we learned about the offense

Other than the backup quarterback derby and how well Brooks and fellow Pac-12 transfer Houston Heimuli (Stanford) would assimilate into the offense (answer: seamlessly), not much mystery surrounded the offense’s projections for spring camp.

Sitake said the offense started and stayed ahead of the defense most of the camp, and even chatty linebacker Ben Bywater didn’t bother to argue with that assessment. 

On the offensive line, the Cougars are stacked — with nearly 10 guys capable of starting. Nothing happened during camp to change that perception.

With Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney back at receiver, the search continues for a third starter. Keanu Hill, Brayden Cosper, Kody Epps and Chase Roberts are in the mix there.

“I would say those guys are all ready to contribute this year,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. “Puka and Gunner are kind of on another level, and then those (four) are all guys that you are going to see play and contribute.”

Star tight end Isaac Rex missed camp after having foot/ankle surgery in December. The junior and coaches say he will be back in time for the opener, but if he isn’t the Cougars should be OK because Dallin Holker and Lane Lunt had good camps.

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“Last year we pretty much stuck with the same offense that we had run the year before, and while the language is the same, we have evolved this spring,” Roderick said. “We have got some good things in store.”

What we learned about the defense

With four to six starters out on any given day, plenty of backups got valuable reps with the defense throughout spring camp. How did they do?

“They improved a lot,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki told the Deseret News. “We are certainly pleased with them. A lot of guys who played some last year, and who were young, got more ready and also improved their fundamentals and their tactical football awareness, which is big.”

Tuiaki said there are position battles — like at safety and along the defensive line — that will continue through fall camp. He said injured vets such as Wilgar and Pili didn’t just stand around or go golfing during practices. They coached.

“It was just positive altogether,” he said. “The younger guys got more reps, and the older guys added some (coaching) knowledge. It was good.”

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Tuiaki said the defensive line improved, which was one of the key goals for his unit in the offseason. He didn’t want to single out which guys improved the most, but said almost every defender got bigger and stronger in the offseason, and during camp. As for the injured guys, Tuiaki said the expectation is that they will all be back before fall camp begins.

“With injuries, it is tough to predict,” he said. “But we are expecting them all to be ready. If anything changes, we will just have to pivot with it.”

Tuiaki said Jeudy-Lally has the ability “to come in and compete right away” for a starting spot.

“We have some guys in the position he plays with game experience,” Tuiaki said. “He knows that coming in, but he is a guy we really need, a guy with experience to come in and really help out.”

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