Provo • After back-to-back 7-6 finishes, you couldn’t blame BYU football coach Kalani Sitake if he wanted to shake things up a little bit going into the 2020 season, which begins here Monday with the start of spring practice.
There will be plenty of opportunities to do just that, and right off the top. The Cougars staggered to the finish line with back-to-back losses to San Diego State and Hawaii in the bowl game to end the season. There will be no shortage of job openings.
Like: at running back and wide receiver, where the Cougars shed seasoned starters. And maybe even at quarterback, where Zach Wilson’s late struggles may have opened the job enough to give his understudies a crack at the position.
Here’s a look at the Cougars’ biggest questions going into spring:
Is there going to be QB battle?
An injury to the starting quarterback can easily doom a season. For BYU, it was the opposite – it showed how much depth the Cougars have at that position.
BYU has Zach Wilson, Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney all returning. The fourth QB on the depth chart last year, Joe Critchlow, entered the transfer portal in the fall.
Wilson has the most experience from the bunch, but he's also had bigger mistakes than the rest of the group. In the Hawaii Bowl alone, Wilson was picked off twice and gave up a fumble. One of the interceptions came late in the game as the Cougars were scrambling to put together a game-winning drive.
Sound familiar? A similar situation went down at Toledo earlier in the season.
Hall and Romney did a good job taking over for Wilson, but Hall suffered two concussions in as many game that kept him sidelined the remainder of the season. Romney sat out the final games of the season with a case of turf toe.
Who's in the RB mix?
The running back group was another part of the Cougars' roster that really took a hit last year.
Starter Ty’Son Williams suffered a torn ACL in the Cougars’ third game of the season. Sitake turned to Emmanuel Esupka and Lopini Katoa to work together to fill the void from Williams, but Esupka was plagued by minor injuries the rest of the season.
However, BYU still found a couple of diamonds in the rough through all of its injuries – and it was a pair of freshmen.
Sione Finau was the first running back last season to rush 100 yards in a single game. Then, Finau suffered his own ACL tear.
The next game, Jackson McChesney ran for 228 yards on 15 carries.
Depending on how Finau’s recovery is going, it could be between those two players for the starting job.
Speaking of running backs, who will replace AJ Steward?
On Feb. 14, Steward announced via his Twitter that he would be leaving Provo. The running back coach accepted a job (the same position) at the University of Arizona.
There hasn't been much insight into who will replace Steward, but there does seem to be a fan favorite among Cougar Nation: former BYU running back Harvey Unga.
Unga has been on the staff as a graduate assistant since 2016 and spent the past two years with the running backs.
Unga set the all-time individual record for rushing yards with 3,455 yards in three seasons (2006-09), averaging 4.96 yards per carry while totaling 36 touchdowns. Jamaal Williams went on to break that record (3,901 rushing yards, 2012-16).
Unga came back to BYU after being selected as the seventh round pick of the supplemental draft by the Chicago Bears in 2010 and spending the next few seasons in the NFL.
How strong should the receivers be going forward?
When the season ended, it was worried BYU would lose its top three receivers – Micah Simon, Matt Bushman and Talon Shumway. Simon and Shumway wrapped up their collegiate careers last season, but Bushman was considering opting out of his senior season for a chance at to enter the NFL draft.
However, in December, Bushman announced he’d instead chosen to stay at BYU one more year. And that should bode really well for the Cougars.
As a junior, Bushman had 47 receptions for 688 yards and scored four touchdowns. That level of performance, along with returner Aleva Hifo, who caught for 483 yards on 42 receptions, will help keep some consistency in the group.
Also look to Gunner Romney, who’s been solid over the past two years, to vie for a starting position this upcoming season.
What can we expect from the midyear additions?
During the early signing period in December, BYU announced nine athletes who would be coming to Provo as midyear additions. The group committed and signed to BYU years ago, but opted to go on their church mission before enrolling at BYU.
Monday will be the first time they partake in a practice with the entire team.
The midyear additions include players for all three phases of the game, but with the way the Cougars’ defense struggled last year, there may be a stronger focus on 6-foot-5 defensive lineman Tyler Batty.
Batty signed with BYU back in 2017 as a three-star defensive lineman and was ranked No. 4 in Utah and No. 22 in the West by Scout.