BYU football 2022 preview: It’s time to go all-in

Long gone are the days of BYU flying under the radar before capturing widespread attention. Everyone is aware of the Cougars. Any success for Kalani Sitake’s squad will be anything but surprising. Heading into 2022, BYU has a target on its back that hasn’t existed in Provo in years, and with plenty of uncertainty surrounding the future of both the program and college football as a whole, the Cougars may never have a better shot than right now.

Kalani Sitake has some serious guts.

Sure, he bruised and battered opponents as a fullback during his playing days, but Sitake’s tenure as BYU’s head coach has shown off his boldness in the most dire of circumstances.

After all, he’s called for 130 fourth down conversions since taking the reins in 2016— good for more than 20 per season.

Arguably Sitake’s most important fourth down gamble came in October 2019, where the downtrodden 2-4 Cougars were just inches away from an improbable upset of 6-0 Boise State in Provo. Dialing up an unconventional wildcat formation, safety Austin Kafentis lined up under center, took the snap and leapt forward with a generous push from his teammates to gain the necessary yardage and clinch a season-saving win for BYU.

The risk was immense, but the reward became even more valuable than just a single victory. The call to go for it against the Broncos has proven to be program-altering— since that leap of faith from Kafentis, BYU has gone 26-6 with two top-25 finishes.

No guts, no glory.

If Sitake is a gambler, then 2022 has dealt him the most favorable hand imaginable, and there may never be a better time to go all-in.

Oh, and seemingly every eye in the casino is glued to Sitake’s table.

Long gone are the days of BYU flying under the radar before capturing widespread attention. Everyone is aware of the Cougars, who have already earned their first preseason ranking in the AP polls since 2009. ESPN, USA Today and The Athletic are among the crowd of experts and pundits to list BYU as a legitimate New Year’s Six candidate or even playoff dark horse. When was the last time that could be said about BYU in August?

“What’s made us successful the last couple seasons is playing with a chip on our shoulder,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. “This year, people expect us to be good, so we have to learn how to handle success. The challenge this year is to live up to expectations. That’s a different role than we’ve been in, but I embrace it.”

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.

“We have a lot of returning guys everyone knows what they’re doing,” tight end Isaac Rex said. “We all have a lot of faith in each other, and we feel like we’re going to be really, really good this year.. if everyone’s healthy, we’re going to be unstoppable.”

Incumbent quarterback Jaren Hall tossed 20 touchdowns in 2021 for more than 2,500 yards while ranking No. 15 nationally with a 78.0 adjusted 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.

“Jaren is an unreal natural leader,” receiver Gunner Romney said. “He commands the room whenever he’s there. He’s the type of person that everybody is going to listen to what he has to say. I think the confidence that he has in himself and his team is going to be the number one difference here.”

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 Zach Wilson into the NFL. “QBU” strikes again.

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 Harris LaChance 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 BYU’s offensive line shouldn’t be the team’s strongest unit.

“We want to prove to ourselves that we can continue to compete at a high level,” Freeland said of the offensive line. “Nobody here is satisfied. Individually and as a team, we still have a lot to prove.”

Roderick will have a treasure trove of weapons at his disposal on offense — some even being legitimate blue chip NFL prospects — to pair with experienced personnel and structure to make his play-calling duties quite enjoyable. Leading receivers Puka Nacua and Romney are back for the Cougars, having combined for 77 catches, 1,399 yards and nine touchdowns in 2021. In the tight end room, Dallin Holker is the team’s best route runner and matchup nightmare, Rex is a formidable red zone target when healthy and fullback hybrid Masen Wake simply makes things happen no matter where he lines up. “I think a lot of guys on offense are very versatile.. it’s cool just because so many different guys can do so many different things,” Holker said.

While BYU can’t necessarily replace Tyler Allgeier and his 1,606 rushing yards and 23 scores from 2021, it can certainly recreate his production, tapping into the portal to sign graduate transfer backs Chris Brooks and Houston Heimuli in January. The pair of transfers join fifth-year senior Lopini Katoa, giving the grizzled trio a collective 130 career games of rich experience. The offensive line should pave the way for BYU’s backs to plow ahead on the ground, and Hall’s mobility paired with Roderick’s creativity will allow for plenty of effective backfield receiving opportunities as well.

“The fun part with my group is every single one of them can catch,” running backs coach Harvey Unga said. “Every guy has great hands and can run a route. It’s fun to see them and it’s been cool to see that (Roderick) trusts them and has implemented a lot of different things for the backs to be involved in the passing game.”

It’s an offense that has averaged more than 38 points per game over the past two seasons, and health permitting, it should be expected to accomplish the same in 2022. There’s no excuse for anything less.

“I feel like our offense can be one of the best offenses in the nation,” Rex said. “As long as we play to our strengths and play to the best of our abilities, we can make it to the top. I have a lot of faith in all our guys.”

There are still answers awaiting on the defensive side of the ball — especially following a 31-28 loss to UAB in last season’s Independence Bowl — but 10 of 11 starters are set to return along with a number of other players who played meaningful snaps in 2021.

“It was not fun to lose the way we did in the Independence Bowl, but the silver lining is that these guys are hungry,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “They are ready to get after it. They know the expectations are higher. They know they can do better and they should do better.”

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 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 2021 have now become reps to solidify 2022’s depth, especially when facing repeat opponents such as USF, Baylor, Utah State and Boise State.

“I feel good about our depth.. we’ve got to stay healthy,” Tuiaki said. “We can’t play too many snaps with our starters or else we will start to lose them towards the end of the year. This gives younger guys some experience and can help keep everybody healthy.”

Pili and Wilgar return at linebacker alongside tackling machines Ben Bywater and Max Tooley. Vanderbilt transfer Gabe Jeudy deepens a solid defensive back room already featuring fifth-year seniors Malik Moore and D’Angelo Mandell, 2021 heroes Jakob Robinson and Kaleb Hayes and Hayden Livingston, Ethan Slade and Ammon Hannemann in the rotation as well. BYU shouldn’t be expected to falter much in its outer defensive layers, as it hopes that the various flashes of promise last season can translate into a sustainable scheme that can consistently make opposing offenses uncomfortable.

The front four, however, is a bit more controversial. Aside from punishing Utah in the trenches, BYU’s defensive line was continually criticized in 2021, recording just 8.5 sacks together and often struggling to contain opposing rushing attacks.

“As a defensive line, we need to make sure that our run defense comes first every game,” defensive end Tyler Batty said. “When we have the opportunity to get to the quarterback, we need to get there. This season we need to get after it and get off the field.”

Tyler Batty leads a band of trench men including Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Pepe Tanuvasa, Atunaisa Mahe, Gabe Summers and Lorenzo Fauatea, with Caden Haws, Fisher Jackson, Blake Mangelson, John Nelson and Alden Tofa also having hundreds of game reps as well. Everything for the defense will start up front, and BYU’s defensive line will to be as cohesive as possible even if the results aren’t necessarily loud.

“We’ve got a crew where not too many people are talking about specific guys,” Tuiaki said. “We’ve got guys that are quietly doing their jobs really, really, well and it’s making us play better as a defense.”

Simply put, the defense flashed at times last year but lacked sufficient experience to take the next step. This year, BYU is banking on its experience to cash in as a difference maker. Historically, BYU’s defense enjoys success when returning significant production, so 2022 should see an uptick in both confidence and stops on third down.

“We just need to stay humble and hungry,” Pili said. “I think every year we need to keep looking at the things we did wrong, because in some of those losses we should’ve won. We have to stay humble and hungry and we’ll come back this season and do even better.”

The world of college football is changing rapidly before our eyes.

Conference realignment chaos has run rampant across the country. Name, image and likeness (NIL) developments for student athletes are affecting recruiting efforts and will only grow in their influence throughout the sport, and the transfer portal is ravaging rosters to make the NCAA feel much more like the NFL.

BYU has had relatively good fortune thus far within college football’s new world. A Power 5 reality in the Big 12 is nearing, NIL hasn’t been too controversial and the transfer portal has augmented BYU’s depth rather than purged it.

But none of that is guaranteed to last.

With the Big Ten and SEC swelling toward an inevitable future of super conferences, the Big 12 could easily lose relevance and drift from the power landscape in the next decade if it can’t add any new members. NIL and the portal are both so chaotic that BYU’s luck in each could flip at any moment.

College football’s future is uncertain and a bit frightening, which should give BYU a real sense of urgency for 2022 in its last season of Independence. BYU’s roster, schedule and national reputation are all perfectly placed for Sitake’s program to make a leap as a certified national force before Big 12 membership changes everything once again.

The schedule is a monster— home rematches with 2021 conference champions Baylor and Utah State, grueling Pac-12 road trips to Oregon and Stanford, a formidable SEC visitor in Arkansas, two east coast road trips, playing Boise State on the blue turf AND a Las Vegas showdown with Notre Dame. That’s clearly no cakewalk.

With four opponents ranked in the preseason poll along with a number of other respectable programs, sound execution in these matchups could indeed propel the Cougars into the New Year’s Six conversation, but a few missteps could prove embarrassing. The stakes are high— clearly where Sitake wants them.

Who knows when BYU’s next NFL quarterback will be after Hall? Or if its offensive line, linebacker corps or kicking tandem will ever be as talented as 2022? Not only is BYU’s returning production from last year’s 10-win team the most in the country, but it could be the most it’ll ever have again with incoming Big 12 growing pains and the portal’s wild nature.

It’s an all-in, now or never and full send season in Provo. Sitake’s cards are stacked to make history, and the winning payout would be incredible. It all begins this Saturday in Tampa.

BYU kicks off its 2022 season against USF this Saturday in Tampa. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU at 2 p.m.


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