After its most successful season in more than a decade, BYU football is getting back to business. The Cougars are set to start spring football practice on Monday.
BYU will hold 15 practices throughout the month, concluding on March 26 — which will serve as the Cougars’ NFL Pro Day.
Although the 2020 season just ended a little more than two months ago, a lot of changes have been made within the program. To break it down, here are five questions for BYU moving forward:
1. Who will Zach Wilson’s successor be?
Wilson came to BYU, saw and conquered. With the way he excelled last season (3,692 passing yards and 33 passing touchdowns), it only made sense for Wilson to enter the NFL Draft. But who’s on deck to lead the offense?
The job seems to be between three contestants: Baylor Romney, Jaren Hall and Jacob Conover. Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters could make a run at the competition, but it seems he has a lot more catching up to do.
Due to an injury-plagued 2019 season, Romney and Hall were able to each get starts two years ago. Hall sat out the 2020 season with a hip injury and, because of how effective Wilson was, Romney put in a lot of relief work last year. Conover came in during the 2020 fall camp, but boasts an impressive resume.
Although the QB1 race will be a big part of spring practices, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said he doesn’t expect to have a decision made after the 15 practices.
“We’re going to give those four quarterbacks to show themselves in game-type situations,” Sitake said. “If it gets narrowed down a little bit more towards the end of spring — I just don’t know if we’ll have a decision by the end of spring. I don’t think it’s fair to say that right now. And we don’t have to rush it right now.”
2. Are any seniors taking advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver?
The NCAA essentially made this school year a freebie when it came to eligibility, but it seems only one Cougar will take advantage of that to have a shot at another senior season: Uriah Leiataua.
The majority of last year’s seniors have declared for the draft and a few others have just said they’re simply moving on from BYU. That makes sense considering a lot of them were already five or six-year seniors last season.
3. What will the trenches look like?
A major contributor to BYU’s success last year, and the reason Wilson was able to fill up his stats line, was the offensive line. However, the Cougars are losing out on Brady Christensen (who opted to skip his senior season for a shot at the draft), Herring, Hoge and Keiffer Longson.
While the offense sometimes got more attention, the defense also was strong up front. On that side of the ball, the Cougars are losing out on Dawe, El-Bakri and Tonga.
The defensive line had more youth incorporated, so it should be easier to adjust those starting positions. But, because of the pandemic and different players constantly needing to quarantine for periods of time, there’s still plenty of experience left behind for the offensive line to regroup.
BYU should remain stout up front on both sides of the ball this upcoming season. Whether the new starters can maintain last year’s standard is another question.
4. Will there be any adaptations or major changes to schemes?
With changes to the coaching staff, particularly on offense, there could be some changes to the way the Cougars play this fall.
BYU saw former offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and former offensive line coach Eric Matoes both leave Provo for the same jobs at Baylor earlier this year. Quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick got promoted to the OC post, but instead of filling both Roderick’s and Mateo’s former positions BYU only added Darrell Funk as offensive line coach.
Sitake took the opportunity to even out his staff and added Kevin Clune to his defensive staff.
As there is every year, there will be adjustments and tweaks to be made dependent on the new roster, but Sitake couldn’t say if the team will make any major adjustments.
“I think for the most part, we have to work on the fundamentals of football first — establish our identity, our foundation on what we want to get done as an offense and defense,” Sitake said. “Then we can kind of tweak it to the talent that’s on the field and utilizing the skill set that we’re going to see on the field. I don’t want to make [blanket] statements; we’re going to do whatever we can to score as many points we can on offense and stop them on defense.”
5. Can the Cougars approach 2020′s success in 2021?
This is the toughest question of all.
There’s no question that there were parts of the pandemic-plagued 2020 season that benefitted BYU and helped the Cougars be successful — a series of Power 5 foes that canceled on BYU were replaced by Group of 5 and FCS opponents. There’s no way of really knowing how last year’s squad would have performed against that original schedule (which included Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota and Missouri) beyond saying that the 2020 Cougars likely would have at least held their own.
During BYU’s independent era, the Cougars usually face a loaded schedule in the first half of the season, with things easing up at the back end. That will certainly be the case again in 2021. BYU will play seven Power 5 programs — Arizona, Utah, Arizona State, Baylor, Washington State, Virginia and USC — plus traditional rivals Utah State and Boise State. BYU’s depth will be tested this season in a way it wasn’t last year.
Sitake feels strongly he has the talent needed to have a successful 2021 season, but isn’t necessarily concerned about being able to follow up the 2020 season.
“I’m not worried about the end result right now,” Sitake said. “I’m worried about trying to get everyone to be at their best. So, every player to perform at their best every day, and then for us to be the best we possibly can when we open up against Arizona.”