Here are five storylines to watch as BYU football spring practices begin Monday and run through March 31
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake did not mince words when the Cougars got back together a couple weeks after their 31-28 loss to unheralded UAB in the Independence Bowl.
“We are not happy with the way we ended the season,” Sitake told the Deseret News Friday. “I have (relayed that message) to the players and coaches, the team. They know exactly my thoughts going into this spring, and going into next fall.”
BYU begins spring practices Monday in the Indoor Practice Facility on campus. Sitake and his staff will conduct three practices a week for five weeks — generally on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Teams are allowed 15 practices in spring camp, with the final practice slated for March 31, which is also alumni day. The Cougars will lift weights and have film sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Sitake said he is not sure yet whether they will have a spring intrasquad game or scrimmage in front of the public, for a variety of reasons.
“I have to look at the team’s (situation) and see what kind of depth we can put out on the field,” he said.
The coach said that “one way or another” the Cougars will have an event for fans this spring. Details are still being worked out.
“We will have a lot of different types of competition on the field,” he said. “It doesn’t have to all be 11-on-11 stuff. It can be some drives and some drills, and some 7-on-7 deals. And we can also work on tackling with some of the drills we have there.”
The Cougars entered spring camp the past two seasons with something to prove. They had a chip-on-our-shoulder attitude in 2020 after they went 7-6 in each of the previous two seasons. They sought more validation in 2021 after critics said their 11-1 record and No. 11 finish in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll was the result of an easy, COVID-altered schedule.
What’s the theme this spring, after BYU went 10-3 and knocked off six Power Five teams in 2021?
“I think it is very similar to what we have said in past years — just keep working,” Sitake said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
When the Cougars reconvened in January a few days after star running back Tyler Allgeier declared for the NFL draft, Sitake says he witnessed “a huge enthusiasm to get better, and a great amount of motivation, and a great amount of care to perform better.”
That loss to the Blazers in which BYU’s depleted and injury-ravaged defense struggled to get off the field resulted in a lot of self-scouting and an examination of how the Cougars can stay healthier and get deeper moving forward.
“We are keeping the same mindset (of not being satisfied), but also elevating our expectations and our demands of each other, and really, really doubling down on our culture,” Sitake said. “That is going to be the key.”
Sitake takes a 48-29 career record into his seventh spring camp as BYU’s coach, and a new “unprecedented” contract he signed last Dec. 10. He is 21-4 the past two seasons.
“We are never going to be a program that is complacent and feels like we have arrived,” he said.
A word that will be heard a lot the next five weeks is “competition,” Sitake said.
Every position will theoretically be contested, although fifth-year junior Jaren Hall is the presumptive starting quarterback. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told the Deseret News a few weeks ago that Hall is healthy enough to compete in spring camp but won’t do a lot because he is a known commodity.
“For us, spring practices are a way to get our team operating really, really well together as a group, with all the returning starters that we have on offense, and then adding the new guys to it,” Sitake said. “Competition is going to be the key.”
With a lot of returning starters on both sides of the ball and special teams, Sitake said the goal is to function at a high and efficient level, but also give younger players a chance to show what they can do with and against proven first-stringers.
“Younger guys need to prove themselves, and show that they can match their potential and that they have the grit and the work ethic to get it done,” he said.
Sitake will also be looking for guys to step up off the field and fill the leadership void that resulted when Allgeier, center James Empey, receivers Neil Pau’u and Samson Nacua and defensive end Uriah Leiataua moved on.
“I know we lost some guys, but I need leaders to step up and hold each other accountable,” he said. “We have a certain standard that we operate under, whether that is on offense, defense or special teams, there is a certain standard that we need to accomplish, and spring ball is a big part of getting there.”
With the exception of 2020, when Zach Wilson stayed healthy the entire season and emerged as the eventual No. 2 pick in the 2021 NFL draft by the New York Jets, the past half-dozen or so years have shown that BYU will need multiple quarterbacks to get through a season.
Baylor Romney’s unsurprising departure for a career in the working world leaves a gaping hole in the race to be Hall’s backup in 2022. The two primary candidates are former four-star recruit Jacob Conover of Chandler, Arizona, and Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan, who grew up in Dallas, Texas.
“We feel really good about our quarterback, and feel good about what is behind him, and the guys that can probably push him for playing time,” Sitake said.
Roderick said Conover, Fennegan, Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters and Nick Billoups join Hall in the crowded quarterbacks room, but acknowledged the former two have slightly more playing experience.
“Those guys are good players,” he said. “Conover has been in the program a couple of years now, and Fennegan has been here since last summer. So those guys know the offense well and they are both going to get reps this spring. … We know enough about Jaren now — we need to develop who the No. 2 guy is, who the No. 3 guy is, and go from there. I am excited to see how that battle plays out.”
Allgeier’s announcement via social media on Dec. 28 that he will give up his final season of eligibility at BYU and declare for April’s NFL draft was not unexpected. But it does create a couple interesting questions for the Cougars. Who will replace the school’s single-season rushing leader? And will they do it by committee, or identify a back who can fill Allgeier’s shoes?
One answer came on Jan. 5, as Cal RB Christopher Brooks committed to BYU and immediately enrolled. Brooks, who rushed for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught 50 passes for 345 yards in three seasons with the Bears, appears sturdy enough to be the workhorse. He’s 6-foot-1, 235 pounds.
Monday — First practice
March 24 — High school coaches clinic
March 25 — Pro day
March 31 — Alumni day, final practice
Note: BYU coach Kalani Sitake said an event for fans during spring camp is still being planned with a date to be determined.
Stanford fullback Houston Heimuli has also transferred to BYU for his final season of eligibility. Fifth-year senior Lopini Katoa is still in the fold, having rushed for 242 yards last year, on 61 carries, while taking a backseat to Allgeier.
“Obviously we have to replace Tyler Allgeier,” Sitake said. “The fortunate thing is we have Lopini Katoa coming back. That, in combination with the other guys that are in that group, then looking at the guys we have added like Chris Brooks, and Houston Heimuli on offense, we should be good there.”
Jackson McChesney and Hinckley Ropati combined for 18 carries last year, and are also in the mix, along with Miles Davis, whose development was thwarted by an injury in fall camp last year.
As usual, several key players will not participate in the contact portions of spring practices, due to injury. That list includes tight end Isaac Rex and linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili, whose injuries and subsequent surgeries were reported on last fall.
Friday, Sitake announced that cornerback Keenan Ellis will take a medical retirement after suffering a severe neck injury in the season opener last September against Arizona, but will still be involved with the program in one way or another.
“Players like Isaac Rex and Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili, we aren’t going to expect them to do much on the field, but we want them to do things with coaching and teaching the younger guys,” Sitake said. “The injured guys will not have a free pass from spring ball. We need them to provide some of their experience and their leadership.”
Sitake said that when the aforementioned Wilson underwent shoulder surgery in January of 2019, he still made it a point to learn and grow in spring camp of 2019, and he expects the current players to do the same.
“This will give them an added benefit going into the season,” Sitake said.
After Pili was hurt in the Arizona State game and Payton Wilgar opted for shoulder surgery in November, BYU was without its two best defensive playmakers the last few games of the season. And it showed. The Cougars had trouble stopping Virginia, USC, UAB and even Georgia Southern.
Guys like Ben Bywater, Max Tooley, Tyler Batty, Malik Moore and Jakob Robinson stepped up and made plays, but not enough — especially in the loss to UAB.
So the Cougars need to find more playmakers, even if all the aforementioned come back healthy in the fall.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki told BYUtv’s BYU Sports Nation that the defense “is a lot further ahead this year than we were last year, for sure,” heading into spring camp, but questions remain.
A big key will be getting cornerback Micah Harper back. After a promising freshman season, Harper sustained a devastating knee injury in spring camp last year and missed the entire 2021 season.
“This year is about fine-tuning things, continuing to develop, but also just staying healthy,” Tuiaki said. “That is going to be a big thing for us. We want to make sure we come out of spring ball healthy, and with all the guys who are capable of contributing going into fall 100%.”
Defensive newcomers to keep an eye on, including DB Talan Alfrey (who suffered an Achilles tendon injury last year in fall camp), true freshman Aisea Moa, a four-star recruit from Weber High who enrolled early, and DE/LB Logan Fano, back from a church mission.
A couple of other defenders who have played well in the past but have been hampered by injuries, guys such as safety/linebacker Chaz Ah You and DL Lorenzo Fauatea, also bear watching to see if they can begin contributing again.
BYU announced via Twitter on Friday that five new people have been hired on the support staff as athletic director Tom Holmoe’s promise that Sitake’s “unprecedented” contract signed last December would include a bigger support staff.
Former BYU safety Gavin Fowler is a defensive analyst, while Tyson McDaniel and Matt Mitchell are offensive analysts. McDaniel has been at Arizona State and played quarterback at Snow College. Mitchell was a graduate assistant at BYU in 2020 before following Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos to Baylor. He’s back.
Spencer Reid and Dalton Elliott joined the program as strength and conditioning assistants. Reid is the son of Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and has been at Colorado State the past few years, while Elliott was at Utah State.
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“This is just the beginning,” Sitake said Friday. “There are more things that are going on. The wheels are in motion, obviously. You are starting to see the things that Tom talked about, this high level of commitment to the football program. This is just the start of it.”
Sitake said the loss last year to Baylor — where the Cougars were manhandled in the trenches — and the fall-off on defense when key players got injured showed the program that there’s work to do before it joins the Big 12 in 2023.
“There is always something to work on and to improve and get better,” Sitake said. “That is what I am trying to do. I don’t have all the answers, but I know where to find them.”
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