BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told an Education Week crowd Wednesday that he can’t go anywhere — church, the barber shop, the grocery store — without fans asking him about the starting quarterback race and the prospects for a football turnaround in 2018.
I’ve experienced the same queries, albeit to a much lesser extent than the Cougars’ AD. Tanner Mangum or Zach Wilson? Bowl-bound, or another bust? The season opener Sept. 1 at Arizona can’t come soon enough.
For more on what Holmoe had to say in his annual Q&A at the Kimball Building on campus — a lot more — scroll to the end of your friendly weekly newsletter.
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Last week we told you the Cougars will be better in 2018, but that might not translate to more wins. Coach Kalani Sitake faces a more difficult schedule in 2018; Everybody knows Wisconsin, Washington, Arizona, Utah and Boise State are going to be tough, but some folks don’t realize that Utah State, Northern Illinois and even New Mexico State are on the rise and won’t be gimmes for the rebuilding Cougars either.
As far as the quarterback race, my guess is that coaches already know who the starter is going to be. Thursday’s midday scrimmage, the final scrimmage of camp, will simply confirm that. I’ve got a hunch that they will announce it Monday during Sitake’s first news conference of game week.
Having gone back and forth on Mangum and Wilson several times the past two weeks since it became apparent they were the finalists, I’m leaning towards Mangum.
As Sitake said Wednesday: Stay tuned.
ARod to the rescue
New quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick is proving to be one of those go-to guys on the coaching staff for the media, a coach who will give it to you straight without playing a lot of mind games. Roderick has been around a long time, and knows what the media wants, even if he has to apologize at times for not being able to deliver.
Asked Wednesday if anything is keeping him up at night, the former University of Utah assistant coach shook his head.
“Nothing. I am not scared or nervous,” he said. “It is part of the job, right? We got a tough schedule. Every week feels like life or death. It is just part of the deal. It’s fun.”
Roderick said there’s not more pressure on the staff just because the early part of the schedule is extremely difficult.
“Every game is huge. We got to be in midseason form in Week 1. We have taken that approach through camp that we have to be ready to play right from the start. There are no gimmes,” he said.
Roderick surprised reporters a bit Wednesday when he said Wilson and Mangum aren’t the only capable quarterbacks in camp. He said Joe Critchlow, Jaren Hall and even Baylor Romney, a freshman walk-on, are solid players.
"Jaren came home in great shape. You rarely see a return missionary that is in that good of physical condition right away. He was ready to play right when he got home, physically, anyway. He is a smart guy. He’s got a fast release and he is accurate. He is fighting to be in the mix out here and he’s got a bright future,” Roderick said. “This is going to sound crazy, but Baylor Romney is a good player, too. He’s right there. You have to make tough decisions. There are not enough reps to give everybody reps every day. But the gap from our top guy to maybe a little more down the list, the margin is pretty narrow. These guys are good players and it is fun to coach them.”
The Weekly Roundup
• Holmoe was candid, entertaining, humorous and affable Wednesday in his annual State of BYU Athletics discussion at Education Week. Tribune
• To no one’s surprise, BYU coaches said they are really close to naming a starting quarterback. Tribune
• BYU shuttled through a lot of quarterbacks last year, but also had a hard time finding a reliable, every-down running back. Ula Tolutau’s fumbling problems and suspension due to off-field legal issues didn’t help. Coach Kalani Sitake said he would really like to find one this year. Who are the candidates? Tribune
• My colleague Kurt Kragthorpe attended the news conference promoting the Beehive Classic, that college basketball event at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City that didn’t quite draw the crowd last year that organizers had anticipated. They’ve lowered some ticket prices this year (for students), and BYU will meet Utah in a noon matinee. Expect larger crowds. Tribune
• Moving defensive stars Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner from cornerback to safety last spring seemed like a good idea. But suddenly, due to injuries, the Cougars look a bit thin at cornerback. Time to re-think the moves? Tribune
• BYU running back Squally Canada was kind enough to share his parents’ contact information with me so I could write about the senior’s upbringing in Milpitas, Calif. His mother is a star in her own right, having raised more than a dozen at-risk children in her home. Tribune
• Finally, Tribune columnist Gordon Monson weighed in on BYU’s slipping national profile, caused by last season’s slide. Will it continue, or get turned around in Sitake’s third season? Tribune
Views from elsewhere
Here’s what Holmoe said when he was asked at Education Week if he believes BYU is discriminated against because of its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
“I have thought about this a lot. No, I don’t. The reason is, we are members of [the church]. We have learned that we need to stand up. We chose this. This is what we are. You can’t just pick out the good fruit. We do the very best we can, and people take shots sometimes. It’s OK. We’re strong. And because of that, we get stronger.
"When we weren’t accepted into the Big 12, it was because they decided in the end they weren’t going to add anybody. That’s why. Some people said it was because of certain activist groups and stuff. And so, like I said before, we listened to the feedback, and we got better, and we improved. We are definitely stronger in those areas as a school. And that’s a beautiful thing.
"I don’t want anybody [from BYU] thinking, ‘woe is me. We are just being picked on.’ We are blessed beyond belief. When we crush people, people don’t feel sorry for us. We are just competing with everybody else, and you know what? Players on the field, they never think about that stuff, ever. Competitors just love to compete.”
The Salt Lake Tribune’s annual College Football Preview Section will be published in Sunday’s newspaper. It will include a BYU season preview article, a closer look at all 12 games on the Cougars’ schedule, my stab at the two-deep chart, and more. If you’re not a print subscriber, grab a copy at the usual outlets. Of course, everything will be online at sltrib.com as well.
Holmoe speaks from the heart
As mentioned above, BYU AD Tom Holmoe spent about 55 minutes on Wednesday answering questions from an Education Week audience at the Spencer W. Kimball Tower on campus. It was impossible to squeeze everything Holmoe said into my article for the printed version of the newspaper. Thank goodness for the web.
Here’s more from the 30 or so questions asked of Holmoe in the annual Q&A:
On the prospects for the 2018-19 sports year at BYU:
“I am super-excited for this year, for the whole entire year. … I am excited for this year because last year some of our teams did very well. … But some of our really good teams, including, and especially, football, were down. And it is kind of uncharted waters for BYU football. … I think you bleed like I bleed, blue. And it hurts.”
On the football team’s hoped-for turnaround:
“If you went to football practice today, for those of you who watched last year, I don’t think there is one person in this room that wouldn’t say this team is better. I know they are better. But that doesn’t mean they will come right out and play great. It is all about chemistry and trust and love. … If you have been on a great team, the best teams, they really love each other. … These kids need to learn to trust each other, and play for each other, and not play for themselves.”
On why BYU doesn’t recruit more international athletes:
He started by saying BYU should go after the best LDS athletes in the country and make them a priority.
“Some of our teams that are not as competitive as they used to be are losing church members to other schools across the country. And one of them is football. There are great members of the church who have gone to other schools. There used to be a day that we nailed it. We never lost them. So that’s where we start. We gotta get back to that.
I don’t begrudge those kids for going to other schools. They are going to great schools with incredible teams. But we would love to have them here. And I tell the coaches, we have to earn that back.”
Holmoe said BYU needs to supplement the members of the church with some great young kids that are not members of the faith.
“And the history of our programs are so great when we bring those kids in, it is magic how they work together. A part of that is international kids. .. But it is harder and harder to get international students accepted into BYU. It is very difficult. The admissions requirements have been raised, and that raises for everything. Now athletics still has an opportunity to get admission exceptions. Not all of our [athletes] are Phi Beta Kappas. You understand that. There are exceptions. but it is difficult.”
When people ask why BYU doesn’t recruit more internationals, Holmoe says: “There aren’t as many as you might think” who are great fits.
"It is a huge risk for them. It would be wrong of us to bring those in that don’t fit.”
On his own thoughts about the quarterback competition:
“It is important for you to know, I never, never go to any of our coaches in any of our sports and say one thing about who should play, what position, how long, ever. Ever. … They are going to put the best quarterback out there, and I am going to be comfortable with whoever it is. I really am. .. Whichever one they choose will be a really good choice. And I feel really good about that.”
On if it is wise to stack the schedule with so many good, Power 5 teams:
“You lose some stuff not being in a conference. There are some cons to it, for sure. And those are hard. … I am the one making those decisions, with our administration. We are really solid about that. There may come a time down the road where we go, you know what, things are rough. We need to make a change. But for right now, I love playing [tough games]. If you asked the players, they feel the same way.”
On how he responds to the media, especially after negative articles on BYU:
“We should, as athletic administrators and coaches and student-athletes at BYU, trust the media. And I have great relationships with the media. … That’s their job. Their job is to cover BYU and give angles about it. And people you don’t like, you [still] read their articles. You love reading their articles. They fire you up. It all works.
"I read the paper. Coaches say, I never read the paper. I read it. Why would I not read the paper? I want to see what people are saying. I want to feel it. And then I make a decision.
"But they are going to cover us, and there are going to be good things said about us, and bad things. I am a believer that when our teams are really good, they build them up bigger than they should. And when our teams are not good, they crack them down pretty good. That goes for individual players, too. … The writers seem to [focus] on the outliers. That’s their job. They got to sell papers and get … likes? They don’t sell many papers these days. I think our responsibility to the media is to work with them. They are going to be there tomorrow. So if I say something crazy today, I am going to pay for it tomorrow. I try not to say crazy things.”
On what his one wish would be for football program:
“The thing we are pursuing is to be able to compete with the Power 5 conferences on a regular basis. The reason I say that now, is I see our student athletes, and you have heard me say that. That’s why 170 employees down there [in athletic department] have jobs. Is for the student athletes. And our kids can compete with anybody. They can compete with Notre Dame, and Alabama, and USC, and the University of Utah. We can compete with any of them, person to person.
"But the conferences have been aligned where they don’t get to do that. I just yearn to see our kids compete against the best. And it is hard to do that when you can’t get into a conference like that, or you are not allowed to compete in a conference like that. I would like to see our players compete against the best. I can probably think of five other things, but that’s my first thought.”
On his level of confidence that BYU will go to a bowl game this year:
“If we qualify, we will go to a bowl game. We don’t have a game scheduled. When we first became independent, ESPN gave us a list of nine games we could potentially play in.”
Then he talked about fears that ESPN will dump BYU: “People, BYU has a great reputation, still, to this day. Last year, with a 4-9 team, our numbers were still good on TV. People watched. People watch the games. The tribe [watches]. A lot of people in the tribe. They like BYU. … Now, we can’t be messing around too long. If we bounce back and play well again, we will be back on top. I don’t like being mediocre.”
On his expectations for BYU playing Utah moving forward:
“My expectation is that we play them in every sport that we can, every year. That’s what I would like to do. That’s what we are trying to do. That’s what we are doing. For the most part, we have home and home. We go there. They come here. Contracts that go only two years. We have a contract in football with Boise — it has a few years left — that went for 10 years, five years here and five years there.
"Utah does not want to do a longterm contract in any of their sports. Most of their [coaches] are saying, ‘yeah, we want to play BYU.’ You have to understand, the reason they want to play us and we want to play them in the Olympic sports is because both teams are good. You need to play good teams in order to get good power rankings and get seeded in the tournaments.
"Anything that gets in the way of that is nonsense. The coaches know it, the players know it. But some of the fans don’t understand that. That’s the way it goes.
"Their new athletic director [Mark Harlan] is a really good guy. I know him and we have talked a little bit and we have a [plan].
"Football has a little bit different feel, though, because they only have those three or four [non-conference] games depending on how the Pac 12 does it in the future, and it makes it hard for Utah to play teams like BYU every year.
"But teams like Florida, Florida State, Miami, that are in different conferences that play each other all the time. They don’t dream about not playing each other in those games. And when that happens, it is chaos. So everybody wants it to happen. Every once in a while something bizarre happens and it doesn’t happen. But the expectation is to always play each other.”
On what they are doing to improve the baseball team:
After talking about the improved facilities, he said: “We need to win games. The year before, we were in NCAA tournament for first time in 12 years. That’s a big thing. But we struggled and slipped a little bit. We got to get back. In this era, baseball is super hard at BYU. Why? You have pitchers that have to play. Now, you have kids who come out of high school that you sign, and they get drafted, and you don’t get them. You sign a kid that is a great pitcher. Then guess what? He’s going on a mission for two years. And so the baseball team is a little more complicated because of the Major League draft. It is hard. And you have to time out when people are coming in and out, particularly the pitchers.
"But we have to get our act together. We did not play well with good players last year, kind of like football. We should be better. So we want to get better each year.”
On whether they have plans to add future sports, including wrestling:
He quickly shot down the wrestling idea and said BYU probably won’t add any sports in the near future.
“I will say this: If I had to start from scratch, with no sports. With a clear deck. And if we started over right now, we would have a different profile of sports. You would have to pull it out of me, burn it out of me to tell you which way we would go. So my successor, and maybe their successor, might be looking at sports such as lacrosse and men’s soccer, that didn’t used to be that big of a thing. But at some point in time, the time will come with the demographics and it will be better for the church to go into those areas.”