Led by QB Zach Wilson, BYU’s promising freshmen vow to stick together for years to come

Future looks bright for Cougars, who are preparing to face Western Michigan in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Brigham Young Cougars starting quarterback Zach Wilson (11) celebrates with his teammates as Brigham Young University hosts Hawaii at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday Oct. 13, 2018. BYU defeated Hawaii 49-23.

Provo • Every once in a while, some of the freshmen who have made significant contributions to the BYU football team’s offense this season get together and allow themselves to look toward the future.

“It is super exciting,” starting quarterback Zach Wilson said Wednesday as the Cougars continued preparations to meet Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 21 at Boise State’s Albertsons Stadium.

“A lot of freshmen are still our here working after practice, trying to get better, so I know they are excited for the future. Just like myself, I can’t wait to get to this offseason, and next year, and just build as a team," Wilson said.

Wilson, who started the last six games after taking over for senior Tanner Mangum, is BYU’s leading passer with 1,261 yards and eight touchdown passes. He has also rushed for 198 yards and two TDs.

Another freshman, running back Lopini Katoa, leads the Cougars in rushing with 423 yards and eight TDs. Freshman tight end Dallin Holker is the fourth-leading pass-catcher, with 18 receptions for 215 yards and a TD.

“A lot of freshmen are playing, and they are competitive [in practice],” coach Kalani Sitake said. “So with the timing of our bowl game, and with allowing the competition to take over, they get rewarded with playing time in the game.”

Sitake applauds his position coaches, he said, for “trusting the freshmen, and going with the talent, if they can do it. They are going to compete, and regardless of their age or their experience, the best will play.”

It appears that none of the true freshmen who made significant impacts this season, on offense or defense, will leave on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday.

Holker and receiver Gunner Romney, who said when they signed last February that they were considering a mission after playing one season, both told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that they are returning to the program next year.

“We are going to be together for the next three years or so, I think,” said Romney, who has been hampered by a tweaked hamstring and said chances are “50-50” that he will play in the bowl game. “To be able to develop that chemistry and to build from our freshman season all the way to our season senior, I think we will be a dangerous force.”

Walk-on receiver Dax Milne, who had nine catches for 64 yards in nine games, said a few months ago that he is returning. Romney caught 13 passes for 162 yards and two TDs despite never being fully healthy from a different hamstring tweak he sustained in preseason camp, he said.

“Sticking together is always part of the conversation, talking about the next couple of years and how everybody wants to be a part of that," Romney said, “and nobody wants to leave as we are building up to it.”

The Cougars started six freshmen on offense against Hawaii, including offensive linemen Keanu Saleapaga, James Empey and Brady Christensen. The latter two started in all 12 games, while Saleapaga started in eight after moving over from defense in preseason camp.

Freshmen, including those who sat for a redshirt year, have accounted for 152 of BYU’s 305 total points (49.8 percent). In all, BYU has played 26 freshmen this season on offense, defense and special teams, including 17 true freshmen. Fourteen different freshmen have started, including five true freshmen.

That wasn’t by design, Roderick and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said. There was no pre-planned youth movement, no decision to build for the future at the expense of wins this season.

“The freshmen that are playing just earned the right to play. We weren’t really planning on it necessarily,” Roderick said. “All of us thought that Dallin Holker might have a chance to play this year, before the season. That is just one example. But most of those guys just earned a chance to play.”

BYU’s Impact Freshmen on Offense

• Quarterback Zach Wilson — Started last six games, has thrown for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns

• Running back Lopini Katoa — Leads team in rushing with 412 yards and eight touchdowns

• Running back Tyler Allgeier — Played in three games, called a future star by RBs coach AJ Steward

• Tight end Dallin Holker — Eighteen catches for 215 yards, one touchdown

• Left guard Keanu Saleapaga — Started against Wisconsin and in seven other games after moving from defense

• Left tackle Brady Christensen — Started every game, ranked the No. 2 freshman tackle by Pro Football Focus

• Center James Empey — Started every game, ranked the No. 1 freshman center by Pro Football Focus

• Receiver Gunner Romney — Hampered by hamstring injuries, but caught 13 passes for 162 yards, two TDs

• Receiver Dax Milne — Nine catches for 64 yards in nine games

* Kicker Skyler Southam — Made 11 of 16 field goal attempts, season long of 47 yards, 35 of 37 PATs