The turnover of BYU’s offensive coaching staff is jarring to the returning players. They’re all learning an unfamiliar scheme, adjusting to new styles and conforming to new expectations.
And there’s center James Empey. The way he endorses the Cougars’ offensive line coaches, you never would know that his father lost his job in the process.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and line coach Ryan Pugh are “really detailed in their coaching; they know their stuff,” Empey said. “It’s been really great working with them.”
Those guys are here because of the perceived failings of the previous staff that included offensive coordinator Ty Detmer and line coach Mike Empey. James Empey originally signed with Utah after playing for American Fork High School, where his father helped coach the Cavemen to the 2014 Class 5A state championship game. Mike Empey launched a second stint on the BYU staff during his son’s LDS Church mission, so James joined the Cougars last year and redshirted while practicing with his father’s linemen.
Then came the staff’s upheaval.
“I love my dad,” James Empey said. “It was awesome when he was here last year. I don’t have much to say on the matter, but we’re just excited to have the new guys here.”
So the reconfiguration of the Cougars continues. Empey is asked to replace four-year starting center Tejan Koroma. Grimes, whose background is with the offensive line, and his staff are expected to energize BYU’s offense. Kalani Sitake is trying to keep his job.
Any question about his status would have seemed silly after his 9-4 debut season in 2016. Yet Sitake already is being listed among coaches in jeopardy in 2018 a year later after going 4-9. His own employment aside, Sitake’s effort to dig the program out of this hole will be fascinating to watch.
“There’s a huge urgency to get better,” Sitake said recently when asked to describe the vibe of spring practice. “At some time, you just have to turn the page … and focus on the future. I think the offensive staff did that by not really looking at past film and just trying to build from what they know and what they see in practice.”
Sitake continued, “I’m looking forward to climbing back and getting past the adversity and overcoming the obstacles we got ourselves into last year.”
The Cougars are trying to do it in a hurry. The pace of practice and the enthusiasm of the players and coaches was noticeable on the first day. Those elements remain intact nearly three weeks later.
“It’s just fun — a lot of energy, high tempo,” safety Austin Lee said. “Things are getting done and people are competing.”
More commitment is being demanded, and “the players have definitely responded,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said.
They’re the ones who will determine the coaching staff’s success or failure, after all. That’s how this stuff works.
As of March, Sitake’s willingness — his insistence, really — to do things differently is giving his program some hope of improvement. Merely getting back to a bowl game at 6-6 will be sufficiently challenging, and a winning season is asking a lot, judging by these five road opponents on the schedule: Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah. If they don’t upset any of those teams, the Cougars would have to beat California, McNeese State, Utah State, Hawaii, Northern Illinois and New Mexico State at home and UMass on the road to finish 7-5.
Nothing is automatic about those opponents, as last year’s results showed. James Empey knows that as well as anyone, and he’s eager to play his part in the turnaround — by replacing one of the 2017 team’s best players and performing well for his new coaches. And at home, he gets additional coaching. “Always,” Empey said with a smile.