BYU opens camp Wednesday with focus on Zach Wilson’s health, another rugged early season schedule

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Quarterback Zach Wilson runs through numerous interviews during BYU football media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

Provo • For the first time in several years, BYU will begin preparations for football season with relatively few questions regarding its offense.

Preseason training camp kicks off Wednesday at the renovated practice field behind the Student Athlete Building.

For openers, there is no starting quarterback derby. All eyes will be on studious sophomore Zach Wilson, who will be the offense’s undisputed leader, provided his surgically repaired right throwing shoulder has healed after surgery last January.

Wilson began throwing June 1 and said at media day six weeks ago that he was “maybe 70 or 80 percent” recovered.

“I expect to be 100 percent by the time camp opens,” he said June 18. “Hopefully, even before then. I should be throwing every route, every pattern by then.”

Offensive coaching is also settled, as coordinator Jeff Grimes and his staff return almost intact. The only new face is offensive line coach Eric Mateos, who inherits perhaps the most seasoned unit on the team.

Grimes said there will be a few tweaks here and there, but the offense he installed in the spring and summer of 2018 and changed a bit midway through the season last fall is much further along than a year ago entering camp.

“You will see a similar approach to what you saw the latter half of last season, in particular,” Grimes said. “Once we made the change with Zach, and from the time we came [to BYU] as an offensive staff, we said we wanted to have a versatile approach on offense, one that could plug in our most valuable assets to any position and then find ways to maximize what they do best.”

In other words, it is an offense built around Wilson, so he must be healthy — and remain healthy — for it to click. Redshirt freshman Jaren Hall enters camp as Wilson’s primary backup, but it is no secret coaches are looking for ways to get the two players on the field together.

Wilson said the offense is ready to pick up where it left off last season.

“Shoot, I expect us to score every drive,” he said. “I mean, honestly, I look at it, and this sounds stupid to say, but I don’t think any defense should be able to stop us. BYU, as an offense, hasn’t been as great as it should have been the last couple of years.”

Grimes and passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick aren’t backing away from that brash confidence either, with Grimes saying in June that he will “set the bar high” with his expectations for this group because the personnel are in place to deliver.

Aside from Wilson’s health, the biggest offensive question is at receiver, especially after expected contributor Neil Pau’u was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in June and pleaded guilty last week to impaired driving. BYU has yet to address his status with the school and the football team, but it is highly unlikely the 24-year-old, who was listed as a second-string receiver on the spring prospectus, will be allowed to suit up this season.

“We just need to finish games strong, finish the season strong,” Wilson said. “We play a good starting schedule. I know we are going to bring it in those games. I know we are going to play well. We just can’t get complacent against the teams we think we should be beating up on."

Issues on defense

For perhaps the first time in the four-year tenure of head coach Kalani Sitake and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, there are more questions surrounding BYU’s defense than its offense. That’s because the unit that ranked No. 18 in the country in fewest yards allowed last year lost three key contributors — linebacker Sione Takitaki (who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns), cornerback Michael Shelton and defensive end Corbin Kaufusi.

Several of the defenders who will be counted on to make plays this season — most notably linebackers Zayne Anderson and Isaiah Kaufusi and defensive backs Chris Wilcox and Austin Lee — missed spring camp due to injuries and will also be watched closely in preseason camp to see how well they have recovered.

“I like where we are at,” Tuiaki said in June. “I think we’ve got a lot of pieces to the puzzle that are in place. We’ve got a lot of depth in places that we didn’t have in the past.”

The only issues keeping him awake at night, Tuiaki said, revolve around injuries.

“A lot of times, the injury bug can be random,” he said. “All of a sudden something freakish happens to somebody, and then you are looking at having not that good of a season. I am just praying and hoping that we get a little bit of luck on our side. If we can use the talent we have, and guys stay healthy, we will be good.”

With Anderson and Isaiah Kaufusi out, coaches used defensive end Trajan Pili at middle linebacker during spring camp and in the spring scrimmage. That position carries the most uncertainty, with the aforementioned and also players such as Max Tooley, Alex Miskela, Jackson Kaufusi and Chaz Ah You being looked at to fill the void left by Takitaki.

Linebackers coach Ed Lamb said Anderson and Isaiah Kaufusi “are experienced and proven. Everybody else is just potential and promise, so we have to let all of them battle it out.”

Special teams concerns

Lamb, who is also the special teams coordinator and assistant head coach, has options in camp as he goes about picking a placekicker because sophomores Skyler Southam and Jake Oldroyd have both shown to be adequate — Southam last season when he made 11 of 16 field goal attempts, and Oldroyd, in 2016, when he hit a last-second field goal to beat Arizona before a church mission to Chile.

The two kickers were even after spring camp, and both made long field goals in the spring scrimmage.

“That’s still a battle,” Lamb said. “If one of those guys come out of fall camp with a leg up, it is still a battle. As soon as the competition changes a little bit, you have to put the other guy in. I think those guys will be in a battle all through training camp, at a minimum, and probably throughout the season.”

Lamb said Australian Danny Jones, a junior, enters camp as the favorite at punter, but Southam and Oldroyd stand ready if he falters.

BYU’s key training camp questions

• Can starting quarterback Zach Wilson make all the throws after offseason shoulder surgery?

• Who will replace Sione Takitaki at middle linebacker?

• Can incumbent running back Lopini Katoa hold off grad transfers Emmanuel Esukpa and Ty’Son Williams as the go-to guy?

• Who will emerge as the No. 1 kicker, Skyler Southam or Jake Oldroyd?

• Does BYU have the talent and depth to compete with Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington in its first four games?