Provo • What BYU’s offense would look like in 2018 was shrouded in mystery last spring, as presumed starting quarterback Tanner Mangum missed most of the contact drills as he recovered from an Achilles injury and new offensive architects Jeff Grimes and Aaron Roderick revealed few, if any, details.
A lot more is known after the 2019 spring practices, which wrapped up last month, despite starting quarterback Zach Wilson not throwing a single pass due to January shoulder surgery.
For instance, two changes seem certain: BYU will play faster offensively, and its quarterbacks will run more.
The Cougars will play a more up-tempo style because the coaches believe they have the people in place at the skill positions to run more offensive plays than they did last year. It won’t quite be “Go Hard, Go Fast,” like it was when Robert Anae was in his second stint as offensive coordinator from 2013-15, but it should be more than the 65.8 plays per game the Cougars averaged last year.
“Still a long way to go in that regard, but we showed glimpses of the kind of offense we want to be,” Grimes said after the spring scrimmage.
Coaches haven’t added a game-breaking, stretch-the-field receiver that their fans hoped they would somehow find hiding under a rock, but they appear confident with the guys they have. That’s assuming senior Aleva Hifo returns healthy after offseason surgery, junior Neil Pau’u continues to improve after an outstanding spring and sophomore Gunner Romney lives up to the hype that accompanied him out of high school.
“Gunner has a whole new level of confidence that has mainly stemmed from being in the weight room,” said receivers coach Fesi Sitake after one of the final spring practices. “He is playing with a new level of speed, too, that he didn’t play with last year. And then, obviously, his play-making ability is there. So we are excited to see what he can do for us.”
BYU didn’t put out a post-spring prospectus or depth chart, but Hifo, Pau’u and Romney appear to be the frontrunners to start at receiver. Seniors Micah Simon and Talon Shumway and sophomore Dax Milne will push those three for playing time in preseason camp.
Sophomore Lopini Katoa is the incumbent at running back, having rushed for a team-high 423 yards last year — 5.6 per carry — and showing in March that he’s fully recovered from the minor knee injury that caused him to miss the Utah game and the bowl game. Other possibilities at starting running back include oft-injured senior Kavika Fonua, redshirt freshman walk-on Tyler Allgeier and graduate-transfer Emmanuel Esukpa.
“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 [gets here],” said head coach Kalani Sitake. “He lives this lifestyle already, and I think he is going to come in and fit in perfectly with our group on and off the field, and in our program.”
The Cougars are still hoping to add South Carolina grad transfer Ty’Son Williams to its running backs room after the former four-star recruit announced via Twitter last month that he will spend his final season of eligibility in Provo, but as of Thursday had not announced his signing.
As for the quarterback situation, Grimes caused a bit of panic when he asserted on BYUtv last month that Wilson wouldn’t throw for another undisclosed period of time. However, Wilson himself seemed to ease those concerns when he replied to a Ute fan’s question about his readiness level in August if he “can’t even start throwing [until] July?”
“July?, wrote Wilson, adding a thinking face emoji. “Good guess.”
The other two quarterbacks who got the bulk of the reps in the spring, redshirt freshmen Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney, ran a lot, even when plays did not break down. That was by design.
“I have always liked a running quarterback,” Roderick said. “When I coached up the road [at Utah], we ran the quarterback a lot. It is a great equalizer for defenses. We don’t want to be foolish about it. I coach the quarterbacks. We talk every day about which situations in a game that you want to avoid hits and which situations in a game are acceptable to go get everything you can.”
Hall showed that in the spring scrimmage when he ran five times for 59 yards.
“The quarterback run game is definitely going to be a big part of what we do,” Roderick concluded.
BYU’S PROJECTED OFFENSIVE STARTERS
Quarterback — Zach Wilson, Soph.
Running back — Lopini Katoa, Soph.
Receiver — Aleva Hifo, Sr.
Receiver — Neil Pau’u, Jr. or Talon Shumway, Sr.
Receiver — Gunner Romney, Soph. or Micah Simon, Sr.
Tight end — Matt Bushman, Jr.
Left tackle — Brady Christensen, Soph.
Left guard — Kieffer Longson, Jr.
Center — James Empey, Soph.
Right guard — Tristen Hoge, Jr.
Right tackle — Harris LaChance, Fr. or Chandon Herring, Jr.