Provo • Expectations for the BYU football team are as low as they have been since the latter half of the Gary Crowton era.
Gone are the days when Bronco Mendenhall crowed about contending for national championships, made “Quest for Perfection” T-shirts and trotted out other such nonsense. The most immediate goal now is getting to six wins, which would qualify the Cougars for a bowl game after they missed one last winter for the first time since 2004.
With preseason camp opening Thursday, it is hard to put a gauge on expectations because BYU doesn’t belong to a conference and therefore isn’t subject to preseason polls. But a quick scan of message boards and social media websites tells the tale: The school’s sizable fanbase isn’t expecting 2018 to be the Year of the Cougar.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake, who enters his third season in desperate need of a turnaround, has surely noticed.
“I don’t mind being the underestimated team,” he said. “That’s OK. We can really circle the wagons a little bit, and play with a chip on our shoulder, and have an axe to grind and all those wonderful things you can say when you are the underdog. I feel like this is an easier position to come from to motivate our players, if they are not motivated already.”
No question, the Cougars will be underdogs. They will be favored to lose their first three road games (Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington) by two touchdowns or more.
Yes, the team has issues. Here are a few of them as they prepare for the Sept. 1 opener at Arizona:
Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
This question will dominate the first two weeks of camp. New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick are determined to settle the issue as quickly as possible, and already have a plan to whittle it down by a candidate or two by the middle of next week. Based on comments from Sitake and offensive coaches at Media Day last June and defensive coach Ed Lamb last week, senior Tanner Mangum and sophomore Joe Critchlow are probably the frontrunners.
Freshman Zach Wilson might be the wildcard — there’s a reason Grimes recruited the Corner Canyon product hard last December immediately after being named Ty Detmer’s successor — and could be used a bit like Austin Kafentzis (now a safety) was last year. The new redshirt rule that allows players to participate in up to four games without losing their year of eligibility throws an interesting wrinkle into the race.
Will the offseason emphasis on accountability pay off?
Immediately after the disappointing 2017 season ended, Sitake fired Detmer and several other offensive staffers and held a fiery team meeting to demand commitment changes from his players, himself and the coaches who stayed behind.
Grimes and Sitake said after spring camp that the culture was slowly changing, but weren’t ready to call it a complete success. At Media Day, it was revealed that at least two projected offensive contributors — running back Ula Tolutau and tight end Joe Tukuafu — were no longer with the program. That’s not a good start.
• Will the receiving corps — bolstered by the addition of fifth-year transfer Dylan Collie and highly touted freshman Gunner Romney — be good enough?
The Cougars had all sorts of offensive problems last year, evidenced by the fact that they finished near the bottom of almost every statistical category in the country, and the most glaring deficiency was at receiver.
Returnees Micah Simon, Aleva Hifo, Neil Pau’u, Akile Davis and Talon Shumway must improve, Collie must deliver numbers similar to his last season at Hawaii, and Moroni Laulu-Pututau must find the move to tight end to his liking after missing all of last year with a Lisfranc foot injury.
Can the Cougars find a pass rush?
Sitake was seen as a defensive genius at Utah because his units there featured outstanding pass rushers that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and enabled his cornerbacks to play man-press coverage. His 4-3 scheme depends on it.
Former basketball center Corbin Kaufusi made some plays last year, but got pushed around too much. His improvement will be vital, because fellow senior Sione Takitaki has been moved to linebacker.
Where are the playmakers?
BYU’s offense was seriously devoid of big plays in 2017, but coaches didn’t rush out to find immediate help from the junior college ranks. At running back, they will ride Doak Walker candidate Squally Canada, who is serviceable (but not spectacular) when he is healthy, but lacks breakaway speed.
Freshman Zach Katoa, although fumble-prone in spring ball, should also see some carries, and Riley Burt might finally be given a chance to show what he can do.
BYU’S TOP CAMP OBJECTIVES
• Pick a starting quarterback and his primary backup
• Continue to build a culture of accountability
• Find some playmakers on both sides of ball
• Improve the pass rush, get more speed on defense
• Rebuild after 4-9 season by getting to a bowl game