Provo • Kalani Sitake isn’t a worrier. It’s just not in the BYU football coach’s nature. When his head hits the pillow at night, he falls asleep almost immediately, he has often told reporters.
Regarding the future of the BYU football program, Sitake also has a calm, peaceful feeling. He likes the direction the Cougars are heading, he said last week in answering a series of questions from The Salt Lake Tribune via email.
“Last year we ended up playing a lot of our freshmen because they earned the chance to contribute on the field,” said Sitake, who is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract he signed in 2015. “I feel really comfortable with our team going forward. The players we add in this recruiting class will help us get better and provide more depth and more competition in practice.”
Highlighted by the emergence of freshman quarterback Zach Wilson, BYU played 28 freshmen last year, including 18 true freshmen. No fewer than 14 different first-year players started at least one game and the freshman class recorded 75 starts.
With the exception of tight end Dallin Holker, who will depart on a church mission, all those freshmen will return in 2019 hoping to make even bigger contributions.
“I like the development of our freshmen,” Sitake said. “We played a lot of freshmen at almost every position, and I think that is really going to help them going into this coming season. … It is something for us to build on. Obviously, there are things that we want to improve on in 2019. Everyone wants to do better and is working hard.”
Offensively, Wilson — who was 18 for 18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns in the bowl win over Western Michigan — leads a talented group of returnees that also includes sophomore running back Lopini Katoa (76 carries, 423 yards), junior tight end Matt Bushman (29 catches, 511 yards), junior receiver Aleva Hifo (28 catches, 358 yards) and steady receivers Talon Shumway, Neil Pau’u, Micah Simon and Gunner Romney.
Four of the Cougars’ five starting offensive linemen — sophomore Brady Christensen, sophomore Keanu Saleapaga, sophomore James Empey and senior Tristen Hoge — also return.
The Cougars begin spring practices March 4.
“I am really excited for spring ball after we are done recruiting,” Sitake said.
The fourth-year coach and his staff — sans offensive line coach Ryan Pugh, who left to take the offensive coordinator position at Troy — have been hitting the recruiting trail hard the past few weeks in preparation for national signing day Feb. 6.
BYU signed 14 players last month during the early signing period that commenced Dec. 19, the bulk of its 2019 signing class, but is “looking to add a few more in February,” Sitake said.
The Cougars recently got commitments from Cade Albright, a defensive end from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and Trey Andersen, a tight end from Lehi.
Albright led Orange County in sacks with 19 and also had offers from UCLA, Utah State and Utah. Andersen, 6-foot-6, had 487 receiving yards for the Pioneers last fall and is expected to go on a church mission before enrolling.
Sitake shies away from discussing specific position needs, but BYU obviously needs more depth at running back because Squally Canada and Matt Hadley exhausted their eligibility and Riley Burt announced he is transferring. The 2019 Cougars could also use some help at receiver.
“In terms of needs, it is really about finding guys that are the right fit and will help our team be better,” Sitake said. “You always need good players at every position, so we are looking to get the best players we can to add to our program.”
Sitake said he’s in the middle of recruiting now and not in a big hurry to replace Pugh, who received a “wonderful opportunity” to become one of the youngest OC’s in major college football.
“Ryan did a great job for us last year working under Jeff Grimes,” Sitake said. “With coach Grimes having that expertise and experience with the offensive line, I think we will be able to get the right guy in place to continue to build on that success.”
BYU’s 2019 Football Schedule
Aug. 29 — Utah
Sept. 7 — at Tennessee
Sept. 14 — USC
Sept. 21 — Washington
Sept. 28 — at Toledo
Oct. 12 — at South Florida
Oct. 19 — Boise State
Nov. 2 — at Utah State
Nov. 9 — Liberty
Nov. 16 — Idaho State
Nov. 23 — At UMass
Nov. 30 — at San Diego State