Provo • Don’t tell anyone, but BYU football coach Kalani Sitake and his staff gambled a lot during preseason training camp, which concluded Thursday with a scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
It appears that they won, for the most part.
“We couldn’t have written it any better, the way things ended up,” Sitake said.
The third-year coach took some major risks by having the Cougars play as much real football as possible in camp — coaches call it “live work” — and there was more contact and hitting than likely ever before in August in Provo. Even the quarterbacks were allowed to be tackled at times, although not as much as last spring.
Sitake hit the jackpot because only two major injuries were reported, and neither came during contact drills; Backup fullback Johnny Tapusoa (a former linebacker) suffered an undisclosed injury and cornerback Trevion Greene sustained an ACL injury; Both are likely lost for the season.
“Going into fall camp, I think we were a little nervous. I know I was, because we knew what we needed to get done and that a lot of live work was required,” Sitake said. “We were just hoping we could get out of it injury free. At the same time, it is a physical, violent game and guys get hurt. We have been really lucky and fortunate that we haven’t had any serious injuries in those live reps.”
Sitake said the Cougars suffered a few minor injuries. For instance, quarterback-turned-running back Beau Hoge hasn’t participated in more than a week, promising freshman receiver Gunner Romney has a nagging quad injury that limited his reps in camp and defensive lineman Wayne Tei-Kirby hasn’t done much due to a knee injury.
“It has been a physical fall camp,” Sitake said. “I think we are ready to scale back on the physical part of it and start getting the mental part of it ready and getting our team ready to go play.”
The Cougars open the season a week from today at Arizona, which is picked to finish third in the Pac-12 South after going 7-6 last season. The Wildcats have a new coach, Kevin Sumlin, but are still led by Heisman Trophy candidate Kahlil Tate, an explosive quarterback.
Much of the focus during the offseason and in preseason camp was on the offense, and rightfully so after last season’s dismal showing resulted in the dismissal of Ty Detmer.
New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said his plan of attack has been completely installed and nodded affirmatively when asked if the Cougars could play today if they needed to.
“We certainly could,” he said. “We’ve done everything we’ve needed to do other than spending a lot of time prepping for our first opponent. So we are not ready to play them, but in terms of us being game-ready, we’re there.”
Discipline and avoiding penalties have been emphasized in camp, with punishment meted out by Grimes for missteps in team situations. Grimes and quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick whittled the quarterback race to senior Tanner Mangum and freshman Zach Wilson midway through camp, but had not announced a starter as of midday Friday.
Mangum has gotten more first-team reps the past week, according to those who have observed practices and the scrimmage.
Another big question mark entering camp was at the pass-catching positions, receiver and tight end. Freshman Dallin Holker has emerged at tight end to push Matt Bushman for playing time there, while sophomore Neil Pau’u and junior Akile Davis have improved considerably at receiver.
Receivers “are probably the group with the biggest chip on their shoulders out here. They understand that they have a lot to prove. They are getting better all the time. I think there is some depth there, but we gotta prove it,” Roderick said.
Special teams coach Ed Lamb reported that freshman Skyler Southam will be the place-kicker. Rhett Almond and Danny Jones have different styles and strengths and could both be used at punter. Aleva Hifo and sixth-year senior Matt Hadley will return kickoffs, while Michael Shelton will start the season as the primary punt returner.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said the move of safety Zayne Anderson to the flash linebacker spot manned last year by Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers has been “a good one,” and noted that the defense found its way the latter half of camp after getting pushed around by the offense the first few weeks.
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM BYU’S CAMP
• The Cougars will be faster on defense than they’ve been in recent memory, but perhaps less stout
• Freshman tight end Dallin Holker is a rising star and will push for immediate playing time
• Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson may not start, but he upped the level of competition in the QBs room
• New flash linebacker Zayne Anderson will make fans forget about Fred Warner (not really, but “Zayne Train” is pretty good)
• Injuries and departures at the running back position will be felt if freshman Zach Katoa isn’t the real deal and Beau Hoge can’t adjust quickly after being moved there from quarterback