Column: BYU Football Media Day won’t have a lot of questions to answer. That’s a good thing.
Last year I wrote an article detailing four pressing questions for BYU football heading into the program’s annual media day. It was a natural assignment for me, as I had just returned home from my mission and had a million questions of my own after being away from the team for two years.
There was plenty to talk about at 2021’s media day: Who would replace Zach Wilson at quarterback? How was the defense planning to replace 10 starters? What could fans expect from new offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick?
Finally, there was the most pressing question of all: Was the 11-1 2020 campaign a fluke?
It’s safe to say we got the answer last year, as Kalani Sitake’s squad finished No. 19 in the country, ran the table against Pac-12 foes, earned double-digit wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in over a decade and, arguably the most important accomplishment, reclaimed bragging rights over arch-rival Utah.
A season that seemed poised to be a rebuilding effort ended having exceeded all expectations, as fans who had previously hoped the Cougars could compile seven or eight wins against a tough schedule were ending the year praying that BYU would crash a New Year’s Six bowl. The Cougars proved that they were no joke, as a 21-4 record since 2020 has established Sitake’s program as a legitimate national force.
When was the last time you could say that about BYU in June?
A year removed from the questions and mystery surrounding 2021, Wednesday’s edition of media day should have less drama than an episode of “Seinfeld.” This team has very few — if any — question marks surrounding its talent and potential. We should all know what we’re getting into with this year’s Cougars long before fall camp kicks off in August.
BYU is set to bring back its starting quarterback, three of its four leading receivers, 109 career starts on the offensive line, 97% of its defensive production and all of its specialists. When you add that BYU locked up Sitake through 2027 with an “unprecedented” contract extension and kept his entire coaching staff intact through the offseason, it’s clear that the most valuable assets for the Cougars in 2022 will be stability and familiarity.
Jaren Hall was the victor of last summer’s quarterback competition, tossing 20 touchdowns in 2021 with more than 2,500 yards and ranking No. 15 nationally with a 78.0 QBR. Most impressively, Hall coughed up a mere five total turnovers in 358 combined passing or rushing attempts — good for a minuscule 1.4% giveaway rate. Should Hall remain healthy in 2022, the redshirt junior’s solid arm talent, favorable footwork and ability to extend plays could give BYU another first round quarterback to follow Wilson into the NFL.
Believe me, Hall’s ceiling really is that high.
Tasked with keeping Hall in one piece will be an offensive line that could rank as the greatest in program history by season’s end, with Blake Freeland and Clark Barrington ranking among ESPN’s top 10 draft prospects at their respective positions and Freeland even appearing as a first round selection in a number of mock drafts. Campbell Barrington, Connor Pay and Brayden Keim all possess NFL-grade size and have already seen considerable action in the trenches, and with five-star Oregon transfer Kingsley Suamataia in the mix as well, there’s no reason why the bar for BYU’s offensive line shouldn’t be a top-five unit in the country.
Leading receivers Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney are back for the Cougars, having combined for 77 catches, 1,399 yards and nine touchdowns in 2021. Health will be the X-factor for BYU’s receiving corps (the same could be said for the entire team, really), but late-season breakout performer Keanu Hill and practice squad standouts Tanner Wall and Kody Epps headline perhaps the offense’s deepest skill position group.
BYU’s most notable offseason departure was running back Tyler Allgeier, now climbing the Atlanta Falcons’ depth chart after posting 1,606 yards with 23 scores in 2021 and rewriting the Cougar rushing record books. While BYU can’t necessarily replace Allgeier, it can certainly recreate his production, tapping into the portal to bring in graduate transfer backs Chris Brooks and Houston Heimuli to go alongside fifth-year senior Lopini Katoa, with the grizzled trio having played in a collective 130 career games.
While the dynamic Brooks is a near lock to be the featured back out of fall camp, the backfield depth, play-calling flexibility from a dual-threat quarterback and running behind a monstrous offensive line should give the Cougars every reason to run the football as effectively by committee as Allgeier did on his own.
Sure, tight end Isaac Rex may miss time early as he recovers from a season-ending leg injury, but Dallin Holker and fullback hybrid Masen Wake have proved more than capable of stepping up at the position to make impact plays. BYU’s offense has carried the team’s success in the past two seasons, and 2022 won’t be any different. Play-caller Aaron Roderick will have a treasure trove of weapons at his disposal — some even being legitimate blue chip NFL prospects — to pair with experienced personnel and structure for scoring any way he pleases. You can take that to the bank.
But what about the defense?
To say BYU was gassed in the fourth quarter of the Independence Bowl would be an understatement. No matter what they tried, the Cougars just couldn’t stop UAB to save their lives, and it was embarrassing.
Although Tuiaki’s unit wasn’t bad by any means, BYU’s defense was ultimately the team’s achilles heel in 2021. It took a noticeable hit when linebacker Keenan Pili was ruled out for the season after three games in September and spiraled further when Payton Wilgar suffered the same fate in November. The defense lost the Baylor game, needed an offensive bailout against Virginia and USC and couldn’t keep UAB from plowing for more than 400 yards in Shreveport.
The defense was depth-tested all season, constantly rearranging the depth chart as starters and their replacements dropped like flies onto the injured list. By bowl season in December, BYU’s defense looked a whole lot different than when it opened against Arizona.
Some may say the defense crashed and burned, but others might call it a refiner’s fire, as now the Cougars return 10 starters and the second-most defensive production in the nation. The occasionally cringeworthy defensive efforts of backups and third-stringers from last year have now become reps to solidify 2022’s depth, especially when facing repeat opponents such as USF, Baylor, Utah State and Boise State.
Pili, Wilgar and Ben Bywater are tremendous talents at linebacker, and I’d go as far to say that they’ll determine how far this defense can go. Vanderbilt transfer Gabe Jeudy deepens a solid defensive back room, there’s enough experience for some healthy competition at safety and honestly, aside from a dominant showing against Utah, the defensive line can’t make any less of a dent this year than it did in 2021.
Simply put, the defense flashed at times last year but lacked sufficient experience to take the next step. This year, the experience is there, and it’ll be obvious. Will the defense be elite? Probably not, but it should be good enough to make stops and get off the field on third down.
No defense can possibly retain that much production with the same staff and not improve, right? If not, we already know fans will blame it all on the “drop-8.”
When media day rolls around on Wednesday, players and coaches shouldn’t have to answer too many questions about position battles or scheme specifics. Those subjects are already pretty clear. No need to waste time there.
Instead, the focus will be on how far this team thinks it can go. When everyone will say that they feel confident in earning a New Year’s Six bid or even a College Football Playoff berth, they’ll be exactly right — and it won’t be blue-goggled delusion, either.
Everyone knows BYU has the talent to compete with the best programs in the country, which it will be forced to do when facing ESPN early top-20 selections Notre Dame (7), Oregon (16), Baylor (18) and Arkansas (20) this season. The Cougars were ranked at 19 in the same poll, with USA Today listing them as high as No. 9. If BYU does end up in the AP preseason top-25, it’ll be its first such appearance since the “BCS buster” era of 2008.
In addition to those four matchups with ESPN’s preseason darlings, the schedule is even more brutal than that of last year: Five Power 5 opponents, both of BYU’s 2021 regular season losses, two east coast road trips, noted Cougar quarterback killers Utah State (in what will surely be an emotionally-charged rivalry series finale), games on a Thursday and a Friday for two short rest weeks, no bye week until November and even opening the season against a bruising, retooled USF squad that added former Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon (who torched BYU for 38 points in 2021, in case you forgot).
It’s a formidable road ahead. The Cougars know that, and they know they’re good enough to overcome it all.
BYU’s ceiling is no shorter than a New Year’s Six, the program’s first since the Cotton Bowl in 1996. BYU has prestige. It has a reputation. It even has a target on its back. For the first time in who knows how long, BYU won’t be a surprise team or sleeper success story — the Cougars are an expected power.
We know the team has talent. We know expectations are high. We know the schedule is ridiculous. Is there really anything else to know?
There’s no excuse for BYU to fall short this year. If the Cougars can execute and maintain a decent amount of health, they won’t fail. They have the pieces, the experience and the right schedule to prove themselves, and there aren’t any questions they can answer that will change that expectation.
So forgive the players and coaches if this week’s media day is boring or doesn’t offer anything new. It shouldn’t have to. When you go 21-4 over two seasons, have all 22 starters already figured out and every offseason vacancy filled, there’s nothing really left to say.
But what does that say about BYU? It means the Cougars aren’t just a good team anymore, but rather they’ve become a good program set for consistent success in the Big 12 and beyond. There’s no question.