Provo • Unlike last year, when there was a marquee starting quarterback battle and uncertainty at almost every position group, there hasn’t been a lot of drama at BYU’s preseason training camp in 2017.
Heading into the final week of camp — to be culminated with an open practice and scrimmage at 10 a.m. Thursday at LaVell Edwards Stadium — only a few starting positions are still up for grabs. After Thursday, the Cougars will turn their attention to the Aug. 26 opener against Portland State, all while knowing that powerful LSU looms on Sept. 2 in Houston and rival Utah visits on Sept. 9.
After last Thursday’s practice and scrimmage at LES that was open to Cougar Club members, players’ families and the media (for the final 50 minutes), coach Kalani Sitake used the word “pleased” about five times to describe how he feels about his team’s progress in camp.
“I promise you, there is a lot of talent on this team and we got to see a lot of it today,” Sitake said.
What we know
• A young receiving corps is deeper than most anticipated, with presumed starters Jonah Trinnaman, Talon Shumway and Micah Simon pushed by Beau Tanner, Akile Davis and Aleva Hifo.
• Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s group is experienced and talented, but might be skaky up the middle with some unproven defensive tackles.
• Tanner Mangum has a firm grasp on offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s plan for 2017 and is prepared to have a standout season if the Cougars can find a running game to keep defenses honest.
On offense, the Cougars entered camp with questions about the backup quarterback, the open spot at tackle vacated by the graduated Andrew Eide, concerns about the lack of experience among the receiving corps, and speculation over whether a younger running back could supplant Squally Canada as the primary tailback.
Redshirt sophomore Beau Hoge has seemingly stepped forward as Tanner Mangum’s chief backup, junior Austin Hoyt appears to have edged in front of redshirt freshman Kieffer Longson for the starting right tackle spot, receivers such as Beau Tanner, Micah Simon and Talon Shumway have shown promise, and nobody has overtaken Canada in the quest to fill Jamaal Williams’ shoes.
“I don’t think we have to nail it down to one guy,” Sitake said of the high-profile tailback spot. “We don’t have to have a featured back. … You kinda let it play itself out.”
Sophomore Riley Burt, who redshirted last year, has drawn the most praise from coaches, while freshman Ula Tolutau has been slowed by a nagging injury, perhaps turf toe, and did not participate in last week’s scrimmage.
“There’s plenty of work to be done, but overall, I am excited with the progress we’ve made,” said offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. “We’re close to where we want to be, close to being a really sharp offense.”
Any questions about how Mangum would grasp Detmer’s offense have also been answered. The junior was sensational in carving up the first-team defense in the first scrimmage of camp.
As for the defense, second-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki by nature tends to worry more than Detmer or Sitake. His group rebounded nicely in the second scrimmage — forcing seven turnovers and allowing just one long touchdown drive — after getting pummeled in the first.
“It is slowly getting there,” Tuiaki said. “A lot of work still to be done, but we are getting there slowly.”
Entering camp, the Cougars were looking for a starting free safety to replace Kai Nacua. Senior Matt Hadley has grasped that spot, according to safeties coach Ed Lamb, although Zayne Anderson, Tanner Jacobson and Austin Lee will see time along with returning starter Micah Hannemann.
“Depth at safety is one of the strengths of the defense,” Hadley said.
The Cougars have a lot of talented defensive ends — especially with pass rusher extraordinaire Sione Takitaki returning to the fold and freshman Langi Tuifua joining from Bingham High — but BYU is still unproven inside. Merrill “Meti” Taliauli is returning slowly from a knee injury, leaving Handsome Tanielu, Kesni Tausinga, Solomone Wolfgramm and Tevita Mo’unga to man the defensive tackle spots. A late addition who recently became eligible, Khyiris Tonga, should help, and freshman Lorenzo Fauatea has been a pleasant surprise.
Cornerback could also turn into a strength, although a season-ending knee injury suffered by sophomore Austin McChesney will hurt the depth there. The Cougars are rock-solid at linebacker with Fred Warner and Butch Pau’u, but projected starting weakside linebacker Francis Bernard missing the Thursday scrimmage entirely is a bad sign.
“There are some guys working through [some issues], whether it is academics or some other things that are going on,” Sitake said.
Among the specialists, only the holder and punt returner needed to be replaced. Senior defensive back Gavin Fowler has emerged as a reliable holder, and safety Jacobson will replace Garrett Juergens as the punt returner. Junior placekicker Rhett Almond has been a tad inaccurate the few times he has attempted field goals in media-viewing portions of practices and scrimmages.