Provo • It is a risk that BYU football coach Kalani Sitake is willing to take.
After all, desperate times call for desperate measures.
The primary theme that has arisen out of the Cougars’ 2018 spring football practices as they try to recover from last year’s disappointing season is the physicality of this particular camp. Big hits, take-to-the-ground tackling and even fierce, gladiatorlike contact in “mano a mano” drills have taken place in the first 12 practices, and more of the same is expected this week leading up to Saturday’s Blue and White Game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The days of Bronco Mendenhall’s play-it-safe approach, even in fall camp, are a distant memory.
“I mean, it is football,” Sitake said after Wednesday’s live scrimmage in which promising freshman quarterback Zach Wilson was steamrolled by defensive end Devin Kaufusi and snakebit junior running back Kavika Fonua suffered a dislocated ankle injury.
“I have to get our team ready, so it is a sacrifice we have to make,” Sitake continued. “It is a physical game, and guys will get hurt. But what we can’t have is us not be ready for the games in the fall. It is going to be a physical fall camp, too.”
Fluke injuries happen in noncontact drills and situations, too, Sitake reminded reporters several times last month. For example, tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau suffered a foot injury three days before the opener last fall and cornerback Troy Warner got one away while simply making a cut in the end zone at East Carolina.
This spring, tight end Joe Tukuafu sustained a broken thumb, receiver-turned-defensive back Beau Tanner sprained an ankle, defensive lineman Zac Dawe fractured a hand and cornerback Michael Shelton, linebacker Hirkley Latu and tight end Nate Heaps suffered lower leg injuries.
The list goes on.
“Those guys are injured, but that’s OK,” Sitake said. “We just have to keep plugging along. ... With this offense, and with what we need to get done, after the first two years, we are going to be down in numbers because injuries are going to happen. But we have to be physical and simulate a game-type environment.”
Four times in camp so far the quarterbacks, who wear green jerseys to differentiate themselves, have been “live” during scrimmages, which means they can be hit, grabbed and tackled just like any other offensive player. Wilson, the fearless freshman, has been roughed up several times and at times has taken on linebackers and defensive backs while scrambling for yards instead of running out of bounds.
“Quarterbacks were live again [Wednesday] and some of them got hit hard,” Sitake said. “We’ve never done that before. … That’s just the risk we have to take right now. It is a little more physical. It is not just the attitude. We just need to see guys perform in this type of environment. … It will make us better.”
Several players are doing little or nothing in camp, due to injuries suffered last fall. That list includes quarterback Tanner Mangum (Achilles), linebacker Matt Hadley (fractured kneecap), running back KJ Hall (knee), cornerback Austin McChesney (knee), backup QB Hayden Griffits (lower leg), linebacker Johnny Tapusoa (undisclosed injury), defensive lineman Tevita Mo’unga, linebacker Morgan Unga and offensive lineman Ului Lapuaho (knee).
Wilson, a gamer-type in the mold of Max Hall when it comes to fighting for extra yards, said he welcomes the opportunity to go live.
“It is tough, knowing you are in college,” said the 18-year-old athlete who was a senior at Corner Canyon High four months ago. “Everyone is bigger, stronger. I mean, in high school I had no problem lowering my shoulder on a linebacker, but here it is different. I think it is a good tell because there are people who do things differently when people hit them. ... It shows if you can stand there and take a hit.”
BYU FOOTBALL BLUE AND WHITE SPRING GAME
At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Saturday, 11 a.m.
Parking and admission are free (gates open at 10 a.m.)