Provo • Whether this means a darn thing, or not, you should be fully aware that the BYU Cougars are putting the “Oh” in optimism for the coming football season. They’ve done it before and they’re doing it now.
Kalani Sitake has been the football coach at BYU long enough to know what to think and what not to think, what to say and what not to say. He knows his record (20-19) leading the program and he knows the score.
He is the right man for a tough job.
Sitake is charged with winning more games than he loses, against an independent schedule this next season that is more difficult, even with a few gimmes mixed in, than the ones the Cougars faced back when LaVell Edwards was winning league championships, lifting the program’s profile, building the high expectations of its fan base.
He has to manage that with a strict honor code in place, with lofty academic admission standards, with athletes that on the whole are not quite as talented or as plentiful as many of his opponents, and with no conference to play in, no conference title to win.
His school will continue to have a TV deal with ESPN, once straggling bowl tie-ins are worked out, according to AD Tom Holmoe.
So, what did Sitake say at BYU’s football media day on Tuesday, ahead of a fall slate that includes Utah, Tennessee, USC, Washington, Toledo, USF, Boise State, Utah State, and San Diego State?
He said: “It’s better to shoot for the stars and land in the trees than to shoot for the trees and land in the mud.”
No. He did not say that.
He said: “Aim low, quit often, make excuses, and expect the worst.”
No. He did not say that, either.
He said: “There’s no way in hell LaVell could have won with a schedule like this.”
No. That’s a lie.
What he actually said was that he’s pumped for the season to start, even as challenging as it will be. He added that one of the reasons he was so fired up to become the head coach at BYU was because of the more wicked schedules Holmoe and ESPN were cooking for the Cougars.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I wish the Utah game was here already. … It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
He said one of the reasons he was so jacked to get the 2019 season started was because of the attitude of his players: “They’re the ones excited about it, they’re feeding it.”
And he also said: “We’re sitting in a really good spot right now.”
Sitake said giving so many younger players time on the field last season — such as an offensive line that should be a strength for the Cougars this time around, with a bunch of sophomores, a conclusion with which offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes agreed — has built up his team’s depth and would pay off in a big way.
“I believe we’re a lot deeper than we’ve been,” he said.
About that offensive front, Grimes said he’s expecting a “huge jump” in performance there.
“We’re really excited about the unit,” left tackle Brady Christensen said.
Sitake said the Cougars’ attack, in its second go-round under Grimes, will be more of what he’s wanted for some time now: “I’ve seen a lot of change for the good on the offensive side, including the quarterbacks, all four of them.
The starter, sophomore Zach Wilson, recovering from a shoulder injury, said he’d be 100 percent by fall, adding, “A lot of people are excited for this season. And I’m one of them.”
You have to like Wilson’s attitude about being BYU’s latest great quarterback prospect after the way he concluded last season: “I’m just a kid like anybody else. I can’t let my head get too big. I haven’t done anything yet.”
His optimism rating on a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being most optimistic? “Eight, nine,” he said, “or maybe 10.”
Regarding the depth at quarterback, BYU’s highest profile position, Sitake said: “You have to hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
He added that tight end Matt Bushman will be “a huge part of our offense.”
Said Bushman: “Our coaches are putting us in position to play to our strengths.”
His optimism rating is, he said, “a nine or a 10.”
Receiver Aleva Hifo rated his optimism at an eight: “We have a tough schedule.”
As for his defense, Sitake is stoked about the athletes he has up front, foremost among them Khyiris Tonga, who he believes is an NFL guy. “The NFL needs more BYU guys,” he said.
Tonga played at 350 pounds a season ago, and now is down to a svelte and fine-tuned 324, at which weight he said he feels “good” and “happy.”
Returners Isaiah Kaufusi and Zayne Anderson will anchor the linebacking group and each said he was positive about the athletes around them, in front and behind.
Defensive lineman Trajan Pili gave the obligatory more-unity explanation as to what separates this latest BYU team from outfits in past years: “When you have everyone on the same page, great things happen. We can be a really, really good team.”
His rating of optimism? “A 12,” he said.
Grimes called the Cougars’ collection of running backs, which includes two newcomers in Ty’Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa, “interesting.”
Said running back Lopini Katoa: “I’m super excited. I think we’re going to do some good things.”
While most outsiders, including this one here, will only believe it when we see it happen, every BYU player said he was looking forward to finishing longstanding unfinished business against the Utes in Week 1.
Sitake’s optimism rating? “It’s up there. Probably in the middle somewhere. But I feel pretty confident.”
Sitake channeled a dose of good old Bronco Mendenhall when he went the religious route, at one point on Tuesday, crediting the culture that is taking form in BYU’s football program, saying, “We are disciples of Christ who just happen to play football.”
That might be the most optimistic, pie-in-the-sky thing anyone said all day.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.