BYU’s spring football practices were all about building depth to compete with Utah, Washington and USC

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) After blowing a 27-7 lead and losing 35-27 to Utah last November, BYU coach Kalani Sitake (right) vowed to improve the Cougars' depth in spring practices, which concluded last week. The Cougars host the Utes on Aug. 29 in Provo to open the 2019 season.

Provo • As they broke their huddle at the conclusion of every football practice in March, BYU players chanted the same two words in unison each time: “Beat Utah.”

They say it is because the rival Utes are the next opponent on their schedule. The showdown is 150 days from Monday — Aug. 29 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. But it is obvious that the Cougars and their coaching staff are still smarting over the 35-27 loss to Utah on Nov. 24, a loss that seriously exposed BYU’s lack of depth.

The Cougars were bulldozed in the fourth quarter after several starters left the game with injuries, and other players simply wore down and had nothing left in the final few minutes as the offense sputtered and the defense yielded yardage in huge chunks.

That’s why the past month has been all about building depth, coach Kalani Sitake said last Thursday when the Cougars wrapped up spring practices.

“Overall, I thought we took a huge step forward in getting ready to where we need to be for the fall, so I was really pleased with all 15 of them,” Sitake said. “On offense, defense and special teams, we are way further ahead than we have been.”

Sitake said the Cougars were able to create depth through competition, both in the spring scrimmage March 23 and in the “team” sessions — the 11-on-11 drills — that concluded each practice.

“I don’t know if we were really that complicated on offense or defense,” he said. “We certainly weren’t on special teams. But I thought we were able to work on our fundamentals and our technique and when you do that you are able to see which guys perform well. So we know who we can count on, going into the offseason, to really provide some competition for the depth chart.”

Coaches don’t plan to make that depth chart public until the week before the Utah game, saying that a lot could change before then. A couple incoming freshmen and/or returned missionaries could challenge for spots in the two-deep, most notably returned missionaries Ryan Rehkow (punter) and Alema Pilimai (tight end) and 2019 signees Keanu Hill (receiver), Eric Eillison (cornerback) and Javelle Brown (athlete).

Also, last week BYU announced the addition of running back Emmanuel Esukpa, a graduate transfer from Rice who will be eligible to play this fall. He played in 29 games for Rice and had 778 yards and six touchdowns for the Owls.

“Emmanuel is going to have to catch up with learning the offense, but we have a really good group of guys who are willing to help, and willing to teach, so we will get going with him as soon as he graduates,” Sitake said. “We are really excited that he will come and join our group.”

Sitake said the 5-foot-11, 232-pound redshirt senior “lives this lifestyle already” that BYU requires, and will fit in perfectly.

“There are still some others out there that we may add to the roster,” Sitake said. “We will see how that goes.”

Even though they landed Esukpa, the Cougars are still pursuing running back Ty’Son Williams, the graduate transfer from South Carolina who visited Florida State last weekend. Still, running backs coach AJ Steward said the backs who got the bulk of the reps in spring practices improved a lot, while presumed starter Lopini Katoa sat out most practices recovering from a knee injury.

Oft-injured redshirt senior Kavika Fonua and redshirt freshmen Sione Finau and Tyler Allgeier, a walk-on, all proved they belong, Steward said.

“I would say that everybody has had their moments of really good things, and some coachable moments as well,” Steward said.

The quarterback depth chart is also taking shape. Sophomore Zach Wilson, who didn’t throw a single pass in spring practices due to offseason shoulder surgery, is still the unquestioned starter. Redshirt freshman Jaren Hall was fantastic in the scrimmage and throughout the 15 practices and is obviously the top backup.

“He had an excellent spring, improved a lot, and he is one of the best athletes on this team,” quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said of Hall, who also continues to shine on BYU’s baseball team, having made several spectacular plays from center field in the recent sweep of Saint Mary’s.

In Thursday’s final practice, redshirt freshman quarterback Baylor Romney appeared to move ahead of sophomore Joe Critchlow as the No. 3 quarterback.

“It is really nice having that competition, having a room where the quarterbacks work together,” Sitake said. “I have seen a lot of progress with the three guys who got the bulk of the reps this spring, and Baylor was certainly one of them.”

The odd man out in the crowded quarterback room was freshman Stacy Conner, who didn’t get any reps the entire month and has entered the transfer portal.

“We just really wish him the best where ever he ends up,” Sitake said of the 6-6 Conner, who picked BYU over UNLV a year ago. “Playing time is something he really wants, and it is a loaded quarterback room here.”

Key offensive developments

• Starting quarterback Zach Wilson sat out after shoulder surgery, while redshirt freshman Jaren Hall emerged as the top backup QB

• Emmanuel Esukpa, a graduate transfer running back from Rice, signed with the Cougars and will be eligible to play this fall

Freshman Darius McFarland emerged as a possible replacement for hybrid tight end/fullback Dallin Holker, who left on a church mission

• Redshirt freshman Harris LaChance apparently will replace graduated starter Austin Hoyt at right tackle on the offensive line