BYU's linemen in the trenches during fall camp. (BYU Photo)

4 questions headed into BYU football training camp

Rise and shout, the Cougars are out.

August is here and BYU football will be back in action at fall training camp this week. Fresh off a magical 2020 campaign and with a stacked schedule of opponents looming ahead, this preseason is arguably the most anticipated — and important — of the Kalani Sitake era. Here are four critical questions on fans’ minds as practices begin.

1. When will we know who is starting at quarterback?

It goes without saying that the three-man race between Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover to start at quarterback will be the most pressing storyline in August. Even more unclear than who will be firing passes in the season opener is when the coaches will make their decision public.

Jaren Hall throws the ball during fall camp in 2020. Hall is one of the three main candidates for the starting quarterback position in 2021. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

New offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick mentioned at June’s media day that the staff feels little urgency in naming a starter, even saying that unless one quarterback emerges as “undeniable”, it’s possible that fans won’t know who won the job until kickoff against Arizona on Sept. 4.

BYU’s offense should appear quite similar to last year’s and can be run no matter who the team plugs in under center, so it will be interesting to see how reps are distributed at practices. The addition of recent Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan could provide some intrigue there as well. As camp goes on for the next few weeks, Cougar fans will remain anxious in waiting to hear when, or if, a starter is announced.

2. How will injuries affect this year’s squad?

One of BYU’s greatest assets in 2020 was its consistent health. Other than losing star tight end Matt Bushman in training camp, the Cougars remained relatively unscathed from major setbacks after injuries ravaged the roster from 2017-2019. Those seasons were top-heavy with Power Five opponents scheduled early, while 2020’s impromptu, COVID-induced schedule proved to be softer.

Tight end Isaac Rex celebrates his touchdown in Provo, Utah for their game against Troy. The Cougars hope they can keep Rex and other crucial performers healthy this season. (BYU Photo)

This year’s slate of games, on paper, should be BYU’s toughest schedule in the past decade of independence. While the challenging likes of Utah, Baylor, USC and others could be an initiation for possible conference admission, it could also take a physical toll on BYU’s momentum going forward.

Fortunately, the Cougars have respectable depth at most positions, most notably receiver, running back and linebacker. However, replacing players like Isaac Rex, Tyler Allgeier or Keenan Pili wouldn’t be an easy task, no matter who is behind them in the depth chart. As of now, all BYU can hope for is keeping the players as healthy as possible during camp to start the season at full strength, all while developing even more depth in case of emergency.

3. Can the offensive line sustain its dominance?

BYU’s offensive line proved to be one of the nation’s best a season ago, opening up holes for Allgeier and company to run for more than 190 yards per game and protecting quarterback Zach Wilson for his 33 passing touchdowns.

Offensive lineman James Empey stares down Utah’s Chase Hansen on Nov. 24, 2018. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

With strongholds Brady Christensen, Tristen Hoge and Chandon Herring headed to the NFL, new offensive line coach Darrell Funk will have plenty of in-house options to keep BYU steady in the trenches. The Cougars do return starters in junior James Empey, recognized as an elite interior lineman and NFL prospect himself, along with sophomore Clark Barrington. The experienced duo will lead the effort up front to pave the way for the run game and protect BYU’s eventual quarterback selection.

Blake Freeland was a pleasant surprise last season and could be poised for a jump with more opportunities, and other linemen such as Harris LaChance and Connor Pay could further develop into prime contributors as well.

4. Who will be this season’s breakout star on defense?

Replacing eight defensive starters is no easy task. The Cougars will have to fill vacancies at nearly every position after losing anchors such as linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, nose tackle Khyiris Tonga, safety Troy Warner and cornerback Chris Wilcox to the NFL.

BYU defensive back Troy Warner celebrates his interception with Tyler Batty in the first half during an NCAA college football game against UTSA, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Provo. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

The versatile George Udo showed flashes of promise as a hybrid linebacker/defensive back before a late-season injury, but a healthy Udo could slide into a strong safety role as a ballhawk that can also play physical at the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar have been tackling machines primed to take another step up, while linemen Tyler Batty and Earl Tuioti-Mariner return to bolster an improved pass-rush.

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