Provo • True freshman Zach Wilson, 19, grabbed all the headlines a few weeks ago when he became the youngest player to ever start at quarterback for BYU.
But the former Corner Canyon High star is just one of many freshmen who are part of coach Kalani Sitake’s youth movement in Provo. Through seven games, no fewer than 10 freshmen have started in at least one game for the Cougars, 11 if kicker Skyler Southam is included.
The list includes eight offensive players, two defensive players, and Southam, the special teams ace from Wasatch High. According to BYU football media relations director Brett Pyne, 25 freshmen have played for BYU this year.
Sitake said Monday as the Cougars (4-3) continued preparations for Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. game at LaVell Edwards Stadium against Northern Illinois (4-3) that he gives his coordinators and position coaches the freedom to start and/or play the guys who perform the best in practices, regardless of class. The result has been the most freshmen making an impact at BYU in recent memory, maybe ever.
“We have a coaching staff that is willing to make those moves and get guys in the game that deserve it and have their reps increase with the level of trust that they have in them,” Sitake said. “I think that is a motivating factor for a young man. Getting into the game as a freshman, it is a huge motivation for them.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BYU
When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
In the 49-23 win over Hawaii on Oct. 13, seven different players scored touchdowns, including four freshmen: Wilson, running back Lopini Katoa, tight end Dallin Holker and receiver Gunner Romney. Three freshmen started on the offensive line, as they’ve done most or all of the season: left tackle Brady Christensen, left guard Keanu Saleapaga and center James Empey.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said on his Coordinators Corner radio program Monday that the impact the freshmen are making on offense is not a surprise because most were recruited with the notion that they could play immediately.
“We felt like all those guys could make an impact on our team,” he said. “And so, as a staff we spent time working on those guys, recruiting them, and then development with the guys who were here on campus. There are a lot of coaches who spent a lot of time getting these young guys ready to play at a high level. Football is one of those sports that is difficult to play at a high level at a young age, both because of the physical requirements and the physical strength required.”
Wilson and Romney, who have connected for two touchdown passes the past two games, were two of the most high-profile recruits of the Cougars’ 2018 signing class, along with Holker.
“Gunner is one of those guys we felt like could be really good for us and productive early on because of his skillset,” Grimes said. “He wasn’t able to do much in fall camp [due to injury]. So it has taken him longer, but we are certainly pleased with his progress of late.”
Senior offensive lineman Austin Hoyt said Christensen and Empey, redshirt freshmen who have started every game, and Saleapaga earned their playing time in practice dating back to last spring.
“Just having that mentality that your position is never solidified and you always have to work for it causes us to practice really hard,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt said offensive line coach Ryan Pugh has praised Christensen “for doing something that no other freshman in the country is doing” as a first-year player tasked with protecting Wilson’s blind side.
The Cougars were more established and experienced on defense entering the season, which is why only two freshmen have cracked defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki’s starting lineup. Devin Kaufusi has started one game at defensive end (against Washington) and D’Angelo Mandell (the former D’Angelo Gunter) has started one game at cornerback (against Hawaii).
“For us, a byproduct is that we get a lot of depth,” Sitake said. “There is quality that keeps improving. Knowing that freshman have four games to play with the redshirt rule [and not lose a season of eligibility] and all that stuff plays into us being able to make those moves and have young men on the field a lot quicker than before.”
Southam, who was also highly recruited before a church mission, is 5 of 8 on field goal attempts and 20 of 21 on PATs and is BYU’s leading scorer, with 35 points.
“He hasn’t had enough opportunities to be talked about on a national level, but with his leg strength and mental toughness, I feel like he is going to be one of the great ones,” special teams coach Ed Lamb said.
YOUTH IS SERVED
Eleven BYU freshmen who have started at least one game this season:
• Quarterback Zach Wilson
• Running back Lopini Katoa
• Receiver Gunner Romney
• Receiver Dax Milne
• Receiver Dallin Holker
• Left tackle Brady Christensen
• Left guard Keanu Saleapaga
• Center James Empey
• Cornerback D’Angelo Mandell
• Defensive end Devin Kaufusi
• Kicker Skyler Southam
Note: Southam, Christensen and Empey have started in all seven games; Katoa, Christensen, Empey and Mandell are redshirt freshmen