One of the more surprising aspects of BYU football’s early rise to success this season — after going 3-1 in the month of September — is the immediate impact of the new freshman class, a talented, enthusiastic and hungry freshman group who have jumped into the game plan right away.
“We’ve had a lot of freshmen contribute and they’ve stepped up to answer the call,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “They’re definitely game ready, and a lot of kids are just a play away from seeing the field.”
At one point in their eye-popping road upset at Wisconsin, BYU had seven freshman players on the field, a move that showed the national audience their confidence in competing against one of the stronger and more experienced teams in the country.
“It’s huge,” offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said concerning the importance of freshmen contributing. “It gives credibility to what we’re preaching as a coaching staff, and that is that the guys who prove themselves are going to have the opportunity to play on Saturdays.”
Receiver Gunner Romney, the biggest name of the 2018 Cougar recruiting class, has averaged over 10 yards per reception in each game this season.
Kicker Skyler Southam famously drilled the game-winning 45-yard field goal at Wisconsin and added another 47-yard shot against McNeese.
Former Lehi standout Dallin Holker has proven himself in a crowded Cougar tight end corps as a strong pass catcher.
“There are a lot of young guys playing well for us and that’s a good thing,” Grimes said.
Contributions from the freshman group have come outside the stat sheet, with Holker serving as a blocking force in the run game, especially with the Cougars’ heavy diet of jet sweeps.
Walk-on receiver Dax Milne, a product of Bingham High School, has yet to record a catch this season but had his number called on in pivotal situations this season.
Milne earned two straight targets in the end zone against Wisconsin, drawing a timely pass interference call on third down that set up a Cougar touchdown.
Being involved in the game plan early in his career has been instrumental for Milne in gaining confidence to compete at the college level.
“It was unbelievable going from high school games to my first college experience,” Milne said. “During that first third down play (at Camp Randall) the crowd was going crazy, and I had to just take a second to calm myself down. It was definitely good for me to get my feet wet, and from now on I’ll be more confident in my gameplay. It also helps Tanner (Mangum)’s confidence in me personally knowing that I can make a play.”
Holker said the adjustment to college football has included adapting to the increased physicality of the game; however, he said working hard in practice “shows in the game.”
Getting more time on the field, Milne said he is happy to receive more notice.
“I’ve just kept my head down and learned from the older guys, been here every day making sure I do things right to work my way up,” Milne said.
The receivers aren’t the only unit with a strong freshman presence. The offensive line started James Empey, Brady Christensen and Keanu Saleapaga against Wisconsin and McNeese, giving up just one sack between the two matchups and opening up holes for running back Squally Canada and freshman running back Lopini Katoa.
Katoa, an American Fork alumnus, was a prime example of Sitake’s “next man up” philosophy against McNeese, stepping in when Canada’s ankle became an issue and carrying the workload with 6.4 yards per carry and a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Katoa was quick to credit his fellow running backs and coaches for powering his performance.
“I’m really happy that I can be a part of such a great team, contribute like I am, run with some other great backs and make each other better,” Katoa said. “Each person has their own strengths that I can take from. Coach Steward does a good job of holding us all accountable and points out the things that we’re good at. I still have a lot to learn, but obviously it’s great to run with a back like Squally with his experience and play-making abilities.”
Previously flying under the radar, the Cougars have now gained national relevance and shot up to No. 20 in the AP Top 25 rankings. The freshmen who have stepped into the spotlight said they enjoy the idea of having a “target” on their back from opponents down the stretch.
“I actually do like (having a target), I’ve always had that kind of target growing up so I like that,” Milne said.
Another notable freshman on the roster, former Corner Canyon star and top quarterback commit Zach Wilson, got his first taste of action under center for the Cougars in the fourth quarter against McNeese, completing a 12-yard pass to Romney.
“This is a tough sport where guys get banged up,” Sitake said. “The key for us is to compete at every position so the best will play.”