Provo • A common perception in college football recruiting circles is that BYU is as difficult to recruit to as any school in the country, due to the combination of its strict honor code, its independent status, and its academic standards that rival those at places such as Stanford, Rice and Cal.
At BYU’s Football Media Day last month, The Salt Lake Tribune asked several coaches if that perception is true, what they have learned about recruiting to the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and how recruiting to BYU has changed since they played for or coached at the school decades ago, if that applies to them.
Head coach Kalani Sitake, who began his BYU playing career in 1994 prior to serving a two-year church mission to Oakland, Calif., and completed it in 2000 under LaVell Edwards, said his recruiting pitch has changed since he became head coach in December of 2015.
Sitake said he is now “really upfront” about how difficult BYU’s academics are.
“I don’t think I hit that hard enough earlier,” he said. “School is really hard here. It has kind of made some guys shy away from coming to school here.”
Sitake said he now sells what a degree from BYU can do for a prospect, and how the school’s “uniqueness” will change players’ lives.
“The emphasis has always been on the honor code and abiding by the rules and what we expect from them,” Sitake said. “The [academics] part is something we’ve really added a little bit more now.”
KALANI SITAKE’S BIGGEST BYU RECRUITS
• South Carolina running back Ty’Son Williams (grad transfer)
• Washington, D.C., quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava (expected to sign in December)
• Arizona quarterback Jacob Conover (currently on church mission)
• American Fork receiver Chase Roberts (currently on church mission)
• Corner Canyon quarterback Zach Wilson (returning starter)
• Arizona receiver Gunner Romney (projected starter)
• Lehi tight end Dallin Holker (currently on church mission)
• Timpview safety Chaz Ah You (projected starter)
• Bingham defensive end Langi Tuifua (injuries forced retirement)
• San Diego defensive back Troy Warner (projected starter)
“Some players don’t want to carry the burden — what I see as a blessing — of doing service and charity work,” he said. “I have people ask me, ‘Why do you do that? Why don’t you just play football?’ Because we are BYU, that’s why. We are different.”
Aaron Roderick played for BYU from 1996-98 and was a graduate assistant from 1999-2001. He returned to his alma mater in 2017 as an offensive consultant and became passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2018.
What’s the biggest thing he’s learned in his second stint, as it relates to recruiting?
“That the academics here are really tough,” he said. “Admissions are not easy. That is a huge change from when I played here. It is really hard to get people into school.”
“That’s the biggest surprise to me,” he said. “I mean, I knew about the honor code. I knew about some of the things that make this place unique. We are trying to use those things as a positive. … You have to have a pool of guys identified early and know that they can get in, or know what they have to do to improve and be able to get in.”
Running backs coach AJ Steward, mostly unfamiliar with BYU 18 months ago when Sitake hired him away from Rice, said he’s learned his job description is to find “niche” players who can handle the aforementioned issues, but also have Division I football talent.
“There is a certain type of young man that we are looking for,” he said. “The off-the-field character is a big thing. Their film, it tells a story on its own, but I think the key is really getting to know a guy and really going deeper than you normally would at most programs.”
Recruiting is always going to be about relationships, but Steward said at BYU it is even more important.
“The guys that I have been able to recruit personally, I have developed really good relationships with. And when they get on campus, we already have a connection and we click,” he said. “We are all about family here, and we sell that hard.”
Wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake, who played for SUU and coached there and at Weber State before joining his cousin Kalani Sitake at BYU in 2018, said the factors that the other coaches talked about are all legitimate, but the biggest thing he has learned about recruiting to BYU is that winning is still the primary motivator.
“You are going to attract players to the level that you are playing at,” he said. “At BYU, I don’t think that will ever change. When we are at our highest of highs, we are going to have guys banging at the door to come here. When we are trying to figure ourselves out and might have hit a little bit of a low [point], that is going to make getting the right guys here that we want more difficult.”
One such case is elite LDS quarterback Tanner McKee, who signed with Stanford in February of 2018 after BYU coaches believed he was headed their way in the summer of 2017. BYU went 4-9 in 2018, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer was dismissed, and McKee ended up elsewhere.
“As long as we win and score points and are entertaining to watch, we are always going to be able to get a good majority of guys who are high-profile players who want to be here, and we aren’t going to have to fight too hard to get those guys,” Fesi Sitake said.