Provo • Two days after BYU cruised past Hawaii last November, coach Kalani Sitake relieved offensive coordinator Ty Detmer and most of the other offensive coaches from their duties and called a team meeting in which players saw a different side of their coach.
“He was breathing fire, pretty much,” said safety-turned-linebacker Zayne Anderson.
And so began an overhaul in which six assistant coaches were hired and Sitake vowed to change the culture. Some viewed them as desperate moves. Others said they were a long time coming. Whatever the case, Sitake has acknowledged another losing season probably will not be tolerated.
“We’ve got to get back to winning football games,” he said in June. “That’s the bottom line.”
The Cougars gathered for spring camp in March with most of the same players who suffered through and were responsible for the program’s worst season since 2003, but many were in different positions, especially on defense. Perhaps believing that coaching and culture were the reasons for the program’s collapse and 4-9 record in 2017, coaches didn’t turn to the junior college ranks for an instant fix.
Throughout preseason camp, the Cougars have described their cause in 2018 with all the familiar cliches: Circle the wagons. Chip on our shoulder. Ax to grind. Something to prove.
“It is a good position for us to be in,” Sitake said. “I think I kind of like it a little bit.”
History has shown when BYU has a senior starting quarterback, it has a good season. Tanner Mangum, who started in eight games last year before rupturing his Achilles tendon, fits that description. The senior was named the starting quarterback Friday for the season opener. Having graduated early from Corner Canyon High last winter so he could put himself into position for immediate playing time, promising freshman Zach Wilson is listed as the backup on the depth chart released Friday.
But there are plenty of other concerns surrounding the 2018 Cougars besides who will start at quarterback.
Hawaii transfer Dylan Collie and freshmen Gunner Romney and Dallin Holker have arrived to give the passing game a spark. The Cougars were also thin at running back, which is why former quarterback Beau Hoge was moved to that position.
An offensive line that lost three starters is bigger, stronger, deeper and tougher, Sitake said. He’s heaped praise on new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and new OL coach Ryan Pugh throughout August and said the Cougars will win their share of battles.
The biggest question on defense is at cornerback, largely because former corners Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner are now playing safety. Linebacker should be a team strength, provided seniors Anderson, Butch Pau’u and Sione Takitaki stay healthy.
A relatively weak pass rush hurt the Cougars last year, and Sitake didn’t get to unleash it as much because they trailed in a lot of games and opponents were content to keep the ball on the ground. It should be better this season, with 6-foot-9 Corbin Kaufusi poised to have a breakout season.
BYU’S 2018 SCHEDULE
All times Mountain
Sept. 1 • at Arizona, 8:45 p.m.
Cougars prevailed 18-16 in 2016 season opener in Glendale, Ariz., but this time Wildcats have difference-making quarterback Khalil Tate and Cougars don’t have Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams
Sept. 8 • California, 8:15 p.m.
Bears finished 5-7 last year (2-7 in Pac-12) and might just need this win to qualify for a bowl. It that regard, the game is huge for the Cougars, too.
Sept. 15 • at Wisconsin, 1:30 p.m.
Ranked fourth in the AP Preseason Top 25, Badgers rolled punchless BYU 40-6 in Provo last year and should have no problem with the Cougars in Madison
Sept. 22 • McNeese State, 4 p.m.
Defending Southland Conference champions are one of the better FCS teams around and could give the Cougars trouble if they aren’t sharp after facing three-straight Power Five foes
Sept. 29 • at Washington, TBA
Cougars pulled out a 28-27 win the last time they visited Seattle, but this UW team is ranked sixth in the AP Preseason Top 25 and eyeing the College Football Playoffs. Can Cougs keep it competitive?
Oct. 5 • Utah State, 7 p.m.
Another game that will probably determine whether BYU qualifies for a bowl or not; Cougars want the Wagon Wheel back after giving it and a billion turnovers up in Logan loss last year.
Oct. 13 • Hawaii, TBA
One of the few bright moments last year for the Cougars was the 30-20 win over the Warriors in the Islands; UH transfer Dylan Collie will welcome his former teammates to LaVell Edwards Stadium
Oct. 27 • Northern Illinois, TBA
Defending MAC West champion Huskies will take on their second opponent from the Beehive State, after having faced Utah in September. This will be a more difficult game than many BYU fans suspect
Nov. 3 • at Boise State, TBA
Steady Broncos are ranked No. 22 in AP Preseason Top 25, and have never lost to the Cougars at home, despite a couple close calls. Can BYU break through on the blue rug?
Nov. 10 • at UMass (Gillette Stadium, Foxborough), 10 a.m.
BYU’s season officially bottomed out last November when the Minutemen pulled off a stunning 16-10 upset in Provo. Who will be quarterbacking the Cougs in Game 10 at Tom Brady’s place?
Nov. 17 • New Mexico State, TBA
Another home opponent that is probably better than many BYU fans suspect, especially after the red-clad Aggies beat the familiar blue-clad Aggies in a bowl game last December
Nov. 24 • at Utah, TBA
Rivalry game returns to November for the first time since 2010; Will a bowl bid be on the line for the Cougars in their quest to snap a seven-game skid against the Utes?
SUMMING THINGS UP
The Cougars will succeed if ... The defense that was a tad below mediocre in 2017 before losing playmaker Fred Warner to the NFL somehow improves due to its increased focus on speed. The offense, on the other hand, was abysmal and required a complete makeover in the offseason. If the new coaches find some difference-makers, be they at quarterback, running back, tight end or receiver, the Cougars will win more than four games this season.
The Cougars won’t succeed if ... They are less-than-competitive against another brutally difficult September schedule. If that happens, their already-fragile psyche will be destroyed and their confidence diminished after seemingly getting a spark from the overhaul of the offensive coaching staff. Coach Kalani Sitake’s cultural changes regarding discipline and accountability will be put to the test with little or nothing to play for in the last half of the season.
The bottom line is ... It might be an overstatement to suggest that this is a make-or-break year for Sitake and the once-proud program as a whole, but not by much. To his credit, the third-year coach made plenty of changes in the offseason, both in terms of coaches and player discipline and accountability. He might need more time, but BYU fans aren’t known for their patience and he will be squarely on the hotseat if he posts another losing season. Given the difficult schedule, the Cougars will do well to get back to a bowl game in 2018 after missing out in 2017 with a 4-9 record.
QB • Tanner Mangum, Sr., 6-3, 205; Zach Wilson, Fr., 6-3, 205
RB • Squally Canada, Sr. 5-11, 210; Zach Katoa, Fr., 6-0, 200
FB • Brayden El-Bakri, Sr., 6-0, 240; Darius McFarland, Fr., 6-2, 265
WRX • Micah Simon, Jr., 6-1, 190; Talon Shumway, Jr., 6-3, 215
WRZ • Neil Pau’u, So., 6-4, 213; Akile Davis, Jr., 6-2, 205
SLOT • Dylan Collie, Sr., 5-10, 180; Aleva Hifo, Jr., 5-10, 187
TE • Matt Bushman, So., 6-5, 245; Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Jr., 6-5, 240
LT • Brady Christensen, Fr., 6-6, 295; Kieffer Longson, So., 6-7, 305
LG • Thomas Shoaf, Jr., 6-5, 300; Keanu Saleapaga, Fr., 6-6, 295
C • James Empey, Fr., 6-4, 290; Jacob Jimenez, Jr., 6-5, 300
RG • Tristen Hoge, So., 6-5, 305; Chandon Herring, So., 6-7, 305
RT • Austin Hoyt, Sr., 6-8, 305; Ului Lapuaho, Sr., 6-7, 330
DE • Corbin Kaufusi, Sr., 6-9, 275; Devin Kaufusi, Fr., 6-7, 260
NT • Khyiris Tonga, So., 6-4, 332; Lorenzo Fauatea, Fr., 6-4, 300
DT • Merrill Taliauli, Sr., 6-2, 308; Bracken El-Bakri, Jr., 6-3, 275
OE • Trajan Pili, Jr., 6-2, 250; Uriah Leiataua, So., 6-4, 270
FLB • Zayne Anderson, Sr., 6-2, 215; Riggs Powell, Sr., 6-2, 220
MLB • Butch Pau’u, Sr., 6-0, 225; Adam Pulsipher, Sr., 6-1, 220
WLB • Sione Takitaki, Sr., 6-2. 230; Isaiah Kaufusi, So., 6-2, 210
LC • Michael Shelton, Sr., 5-9, 180; Keenan Ellis, Fr., 6-0, 180
FS • Troy Warner, Jr., 6-1, 200; Austin Lee, Jr., 6-1, 200
SS • Dayan Ghanwoloku, Jr., 5-11, 195; Isaiah Armstrong, Jr., 6-2, 190
RC • Chris Wilcox, Jr., 6-2, 190; Beau Tanner, Sr., 6-0, 188
PK • Skyler Southam, Fr., 6-0, 185; Andrew Mikkelsen, Sr., 6-0, 200
P • Rhett Almond, Sr., 6-4, 201; Danny Jones, So., 6-4, 240
KR • Aleva Hifo, Jr., 5-10, 198; Matt Hadley, Sr., 6-1, 215
PR • Michael Shelton, Sr., 5-9, 180; Dylan Collie, Sr., 5-10, 175
LS • Mitch Harris, Sr., 6-4, 215; Matt Foley, Sr., 6-0, 210