What do the BYU Cougars need to do to get more players drafted by the NFL?

Fourth-year coach Kalani Sitake predicts professional football opportunities will increase for BYU prospects, perhaps as early as next year

New Mexico State quarterback Josh Adkins (14) slides as BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki (16) jumps to down him during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Provo, Utah. (Isaac Hale/Daily Herald via AP)

Provo • Barring a late invitation to an NFL team’s mini-camp, only three former BYU football players will get professional football opportunities later this year.

Linebacker Sione Takitaki was selected in the third round of last week’s draft by the Cleveland Browns, while defensive end Corbin Kaufusi signed an undrafted free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Tanner Mangum accepted invites to participate in mini-camps in Oakland and Detroit.

It is another relatively meager showing for BYU, which hasn’t had multiple players selected in a single draft since receiver Austin Collie went in the fourth round in 2009 to the Indianapolis Colts and running back Fui Vakapuna went in the seventh round to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Tight end Dennis Pitta and running back Harvey Unga were both picked in 2010, but Unga was taken in the supplemental draft by the Chicago Bears after he was dismissed from school due to an honor code violation.

At Pro Day in late March, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said there are a couple reasons the Cougars’ 2019 draft crop was small. He predicted that a larger number of his players will get NFL opportunities in the future, beginning as early as next year.

“We’re not only building depth [as was discussed at length during spring practices], we are getting more and more talented guys in here,” Sitake said. “And we’ve got good coaches in place to develop them.”

He noted that 6-foot-8, 315-pound right tackle Austin Hoyt would have been drafted or at least received a free-agent offer, but the offensive lineman who started in every game the last two years chose to pursue a job offer on the East Coast and bypass a likely professional football career.

Incredibly, BYU hasn’t had an offensive lineman drafted since Scott Young went in the fifth round of the 2005 draft to the Philadelphia Eagles. That was 14 years ago.

It is mildly surprising that seniors such as running backs Squally Canada, Matt Hadley and Brayden El-Bakri and defensive back Michael Shelton have yet to get NFL chances until one realizes they all battled major injuries during their final few years.

Several other players who had exhausted their eligibility, including linemen Ului Lapuaho and Merrill Taliauli and linebackers Butch Pau’u, Tanner Jacobson, Rhett Sandlin, Riggs Powell and Adam Pulsipher, didn’t even participate in Pro Day for one reason or another. Lapuaho and Pau’u, especially, had once-promising careers cut short by injury.

Who are BYU’s best prospects for next year’s draft?

BYU listed 20 players who will be seniors in its Pro Day promotional material last month and that number should grow by two with the additions of graduate transfer running backs Emmanuel Esukpa (Rice) and Ty’Son Williams (South Carolina). The school has yet to confirm Williams’ signing and/or admission.

The best candidates to be drafted are probably defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku, linebacker Zayne Anderson, tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau and cornerback Chris Wilcox, although the latter three have endured season-ending injuries — or two, in Laulu-Pututau’s case. Receiver Aleva Hifo and safeties Austin Lee and Troy Warner could seemingly get professional opportunities if they turn in outstanding seasons.

Another factor that might work against Laulu-Pututau, Hifo and Lee is that they served two-year church missions and will be two or three years older than the typical graduating senior. Many teams tend to shy away from drafting RMs, as Taysom Hill learned a few years ago and standout Utah linebacker Chase Hansen discovered this spring.

Speaking of that, two of BYU’s best players in 2019 should be defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga and tight end Matt Bushman. Both rising juniors served missions, and it would not be a surprise if one or both moves on after this season.

In separate interviews during spring practices last month, neither Tonga nor Bushman said they had even thought about leaving early.

Offensive lineman Tristen Hoge, the Notre Dame transfer who will be a junior in eligibility this fall, graduated last week and could also see the need to take a shot at the next level sooner than later.

Meanwhile, BYU’s chief rival, Utah, continues to pump out NFL draft picks at a record level. That’s obviously been noticed in Provo.

Of course, BYU doesn’t have the conference affiliation — or Power 5 resources, some say — to compete with Utah when it comes to acquiring high school and junior college talent.

But the Cougars should be able to keep up with or outpace Utah State, many of their fans believe. That didn’t happen this year. Like BYU, the Aggies had one player drafted — junior college transfer running back Darwin Thompson (sixth round, Chiefs).

However, seven USU players signed free-agent contracts, according to the school: tight end Dax Raymond (Bears), receiver Ron’quavion Tarver (Bears), linebacker Jontrell Rocquemore (Browns), safety Aaron Wade (Browns), safety Gaje Ferguson (Chiefs), receiver Aaren Vaughns (Colts) and offensive lineman Roman Andrus (Chiefs).

Andrus, coincidentally, began his college career at BYU as a walk-on but transferred to Utah State in search of more playing time.


2019 — Linebacker Sione Takitaki (Third round, Cleveland Browns)

2018 — Linebacker Fred Warner (Third round, San Francisco 49ers)

2017 — Running back Jamaal Williams (Fourth round, Green Bay Packers)

2016 — Defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (Third round, Baltimore Ravens)

2015 — No players drafted

2014 — Linebacker Kyle Van Noy (Second round, Detroit Lions)

2013 — Defensive end Ziggy Ansah (First round, Detroit Lions)

2012 — No players drafted

2011 — No players drafted

2010 — Tight end Dennis Pitta (Fourth round, Baltimore Ravens); Running back Harvey Unga (supplemental draft pick 7, Chicago Bears)

2009 — Receiver Austin Collie (Fourth round, Indianapolis Colts); Running back Fui Vakapuna (Seventh round, Cincinnati Bengals)