Competition ensues for BYU football starting quarterback role
BYU has been known as a quarterback factory for the better part of the last 40 years.
LaVell Edwards Stadium has housed such prolific passers as Super Bowl champions Jim McMahon and Steve Young, Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, and most recently Zach Wilson, picked second overall by the New York Jets in April’s NFL draft.
As each Cougar star etches their name in the record books and rides off into the sunset, there’s always a burning question among fans and pundits in Provo: who’s next?
BYU is no stranger to a dramatic changing of the guard at quarterback, but this offseason came with some of the biggest shoes to fill in program history. How do you replace the school’s highest-drafted and most accurate gunslinger?
This year’s squad has three primary possibilities to answer: redshirt sophomores Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney and freshman Jacob Conover.
“They’re high football IQ guys who work hard,” BYU offensive coordinator and quarterback guru Aaron Roderick said. “They’re good passers, athletic and smart.”
Roderick believes the similar skillsets between Hall, Romney and Conover will allow the Cougars to excel in their playmaking scheme no matter who takes the helm under center.
“I think our three guys in the race have a lot more in common than different, so we can run the same offense with all three of them,” Roderick said. “They’re not the exact same guy, but there’s a lot of crossover there. We’ll fit the offense to who our best perimeter players are and then the quarterbacks can run the system as it is.”
Despite their common abilities, there couldn’t be a greater contrast in the paths taken by each quarterback to this point in their careers.
Hall, the son of former Cougar running back Kalin Hall, committed to BYU in October of 2014 while starring at Maple Mountain High School. Romney originally signed with the Nevada Wolfpack but flipped to Provo after serving a mission to play with his brother Gunner, a wide receiver. Conover turned down the likes of Alabama, winners of two national championships since his signing, to commit to the Cougars before his junior season of high school.
Hall joined the Cougars in 2018, redshirting his first season before serving as Wilson’s backup a year later. Injuries have continually plagued Hall’s career thus far, as he has never completed a game he started and missed the entire 2020 season.
“(Hall) didn’t play at all last year with this injury that he had, but the way he had to work through that, he was very determined to be the quarterback at BYU,” Roderick said. “It’s been very fun to watch him work his way back, and I’m excited to see if he can do it.”
In his two injury-shortened starts against South Florida and Utah State in 2019, Hall threw for 420 yards and a touchdown, while also running in three more scores on the ground. Over the course of his career, Hall has even been inserted as a wildcat quarterback to run different gadget plays because of his abilities as a runner.
“We have a culture of toughness and doing whatever it takes to get back and help the team, and Jaren definitely falls in that group,” Roderick said. “If you watch the film from Utah State in 2019, he was pretty hard to stop.”
Hall also played on BYU’s baseball team for two seasons, batting a respectable .244 over 30 games with two home runs while playing in the outfield. Hall recently stepped away from baseball, however, to fully commit the health of his body to football.
“That time on the baseball field was crucial time that I could have been recovering and letting my body rest,” Hall said. “As your body starts to age, you’ve got to learn how to take care of it better. I feel like I’ve been able to humble myself a little bit and take that more seriously, learning when to rest and when to go.”
Fighting all the way back to the football field, Hall feels his experiences have benefitted his case to be the starter.
“I think I’m my best self when I’m competitive, it brings out all the tools I’ve been taught,” Hall said. “When I’m competitive, that’s when I know I’m giving it my all. It gives me a level-headed mindset and calmness under pressure.”
Filling in for Hall back in 2019 was Romney, whose heroics as the spot starter in BYU’s upset victory over undefeated Boise State cemented his place in Cougar lore forever.
“I have the mindset that opportunity is going to be there,” Romney said. “I don’t know when it will come, but I need to prepare for it.”
Opportunities have come sporadically for Romney, entering five games in mop-up duty last year as Wilson’s backup. In nine games over the past two seasons, Romney has thrown for over a thousand yards and eight touchdowns, exhibiting sound decision-making and grace under pressure.
“You have to treat every day like you’re the starting quarterback, whether it says that on the depth chart or not,” Romney said. “That goes for the offseason, for fall camp and for the entire season. You always have to prepare like you are (the starter).”
Despite the success in limited action, various injuries have kept Romney from being completely healthy, a factor he feels will be a key difference this season.
“I feel the best I’ve felt since being here at BYU, and I’d be ready to start game one right now if I get called as the starter,” Romney said. “A lot of fans still haven’t seen me at 100%, and that’s something I’ve really focused on this offseason in taking care of my body (and) making sure I’m recovering the right way to make sure I can be the best I can be going into fall camp.”
As the quarterback with the most in-game experience of the three, Romney sees the ongoing competition as a way to perfect and build his craft.
“As a quarterback, you have to be mentally tough and handle situations like this,” Romney said. “I like that it doesn’t allow complacency and makes us compete and take every rep seriously. You need to be on top of your stuff.”
Such game experience has given Romney the chance to play alongside many of BYU’s returning skill players, especially the current group of receivers which he called “explosive.”
“It’s good for all of the quarterbacks that there are so many weapons on the perimeter this year,” Romney said. “There are a lot of guys I already have chemistry with, and you always need to be working on that during the offseason and through fall camp.”
One receiver with whom Romney shares natural chemistry is his younger brother Gunner, a senior who became a star prospect while catching passes from Conover at Chandler High School in Arizona. The pair won back-to-back Arizona 6A state titles together, with Conover winning a third ring as a senior in 2018.
Conover signed with BYU as one of the program’s most highly-touted recruits ever, rejecting offers from Alabama, Ole Miss, Washington State and others after becoming the all-time winningest quarterback in Arizona high school history. With three state titles, 102 touchdown passes and over 10,000 passing yards, Conover was a certified winner in high school, a mentality he looks to bring to the Cougars.
“It’s an expectation to win. It’s not optional,” Conover said. “We have the tools and the athletes to do it.”
Roderick said Conover’s talents and attitude have reminded him of his former teammate Steve Sarkisian, who quarterbacked the Cougars to the 1996 Cotton Bowl and currently serves as head coach at the University of Texas.
“He’s got a great arm, a lot of confidence and a lot of swagger,” Roderick said. “He has that infectious enthusiasm and confidence in himself that bleeds into others. He’s a freshman who already plays like a veteran.”
Conover considers himself a veteran as well, coming home from a mission to Paraguay in March 2020 and stepping in for a full season as BYU’s scout team quarterback just a few months later.
“I’ve had a year under my belt to learn the offense and get used to the speed of the game, and it’s a huge advantage,” Conover said. “It’s been a dream to be the (starter), so I’m going to practice and train until it’s manifested, but I’m super excited that I’m in this quarterback competition with two great guys.”
Conover took his role on the scout team to heart this past season, often torching BYU’s elite starting defensive unit as heads began to turn his way.
“If we had our scout team versus our first-team defense in a real game, we would have put up a better fight than some of the teams that we played last year,” Conover said.
While he may be the newest face in the competition, Conover is hoping to keep “adding tools to his toolbox” and helping the rest of the team improve.
“This program has a huge foundation and it’s only getting better,” Conover said. “We’re so excited to get better and better and better. Every day we’re going to get better as a program.”
With fall camp just a few weeks away, the coaches are looking forward to seeing more from each of the quarterbacks but feel little urgency in naming a starter. Roderick even suggested that such a decision may not even be announced until the very last minute.
“We might not say who’s starting until kickoff (against Arizona in the season opener),” Roderick said. “If one of them clearly becomes our guy and it’s undeniable, I’ll just say it, but we might hold off until the game. We’re just looking for every advantage to win.”
Head coach Kalani Sitake and company may keep their choice under wraps, but the players trust the coaches and are ready to support whoever is chosen to lead the offense in week one.
“We’re confident in all three of them and in whoever it ends up being,” tight end Dallin Holker said of the quarterbacks. “All three are hard workers.”
With key returning contributors such as Holker, fellow tight end Isaac Rex and running back Tyler Allgeier anchoring the supporting cast on offense, the quarterback who emerges as Wilson’s successor will have plenty of help surrounding him.
“We’re a veteran team,” Roderick said. “You can go right across the board and everybody on the depth chart has played a lot of football for us. I look at how many guys we have coming back who have played a lot of games. It’ll help the quarterbacks.”