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Back in the game? BYU football is producing multiple NFL draft prospects once again.

Whether it becomes trend remains to be seen, but Cougar coach Kalani Sitake’s player development program appears to be taking hold in Provo

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) as BYU hosts USC, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday Sept. 14, 2019. Wilson is expected to go in the top 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft, and he could be joined by multiple teammates.

The NFL draft is coming up this next week, and the BYU Cougars should have multiple players selected.

That’s something that hasn’t happened in a while.

Certainly, the Cougars have had players taken in the draft, but in recent years it has been one here, one there. Drip. Drip. Drip.

In fact, you have to go back to 2010 to find a draft where BYU had multiple players chosen. That was the year Dennis Pitta and Harvey Unga were selected. And you need to go even further, to 2005, to find a draft where more than two players were chosen (Brady Poppinga, Shaun Nua and Scott Young).

This year, the Cougars look like a cinch to have three players taken, and that number could easily climb. Such are the fruits of an 11-1 season that included a season-ending rout of Central Florida.

Quarterback Zach Wilson, of course, is the headliner. A subject of intense national focus since the end of BYU’s season, he is expected to be the second pick in the draft on Thursday night, to the New York Jets. Failing that, few draft observers see him falling farther than No. 3, where the San Francisco 49ers are waiting.

But that’s just the start. BYU offensive tackle Brady Christensen is projected as a Day Two draft pick, and possibly a late first-rounder, while defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga is shaping up as a Day Three pick.

And that’s not the end of the list. Wide receiver Dax Milne, guard Tristan Hoge, offensive tackle Chandon Herring, tight end Matt Bushman, linebacker Isiah Kaufusi, safety Troy Warner and cornerback Chris Wilcox could also get a sniff draft week, and will almost certainly get free agent invites if they don’t get picked.

It would take a lot of things falling into place for BYU to approach its all-time best NFL draft performance: 10 Cougars were taken off the 1984 national championship team, though that was also when the draft included more rounds. But this still represents a watershed draft for the Cougars in the independence era.

(BYU photo) | Brady Christensen (67) is seen in action against McNeese State on Sept. 22, 2018. Christensen is expected to be picked in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft.

A trend or a one-off?

The big question now: Is this a blip or the beginning of something sustainable?

BYU coach Kalani Sitake believes the Cougars can continue to build on the success.

“It’s been a priority since day one,” Sitake said. “If you look at the years past, we’ve been trying to develop our program. I’ve said it before, I want to get guys in the NFL — that’s a priority for me. I think [the] league needs our guys and I think we have guys that can go out there and have success.”

Up until last season, that success had been hard to come by. The Cougars left the Mountain West Conference and became a football independent in 2011. There’s no getting around the fact that BYU’s draft fortunes fell precipitously after decoupling from the conference and coming up short in a continuing bid to join a Power Five league. After having 23 players drafted in the 1990s and 21 in the 2000s, the Cougars had just nine players drafted in the next decade.

BYU DRAFT PICKS: A 15-YEAR SNAPSHOT

Under Bronco Mendenhall (2005-15)

2006: Todd Watkins, WR, Rd. 7, Arizona Cardinals

2007: John Beck, QB, Rd. 2, Miami Dolphins

2008: Bryan Kehl, LB, Rd. 4, New York Giants

2009: Austin Collie, WR, Rd. 4, Indianapolis Colts; Fui Vakapuna, RB, Rd. 7 Cincinnati Bengals

2010: Dennis Pitta, TE, Rd. 4, Baltimore Ravens; Harvey Unga, RB, Rd. 7 (Supplemental Draft) Chicago Bears

2013: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Rd. 1/No. 5, Detroit Lions

2014: Kyle Van Noy, LB, Rd. 2, Detroit Lions

2016: Bronson Kaufusi, DL, Rd. 3, Baltimore Ravens

Under Kalani Sitake (2015-current)

2017: Jamaal Williams, RB, Rd. 4, Green Bay Packers

2018: Fred Warner, LB, Rd. 3, San Francisco 49ers

2019: Sione Takitaki, LB, Rd. 3, Cleveland Browns

But Sitake brought some player development chops with him from Utah, where he served as an assistant and defensive coordinator from 2005-14. BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick also has a Utah pedigree (2005-16). The Utes have been regularly churning out NFL draft picks under Kyle Whittingham for years. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison — Utah is now a Power Five team that plays in the Pac-12 — but they certainly brought some of that philosophy with them to Provo.

Roderick doesn’t know how many players BYU will produce for the NFL year-to-year, of course, but he makes it clear the Cougars want players who have NFL aspirations. In fact, if a quarterback recruit isn’t interested in getting to the NFL, then Roderick isn’t even interested.

“I mean, not everybody will, but that should be an important goal of theirs if they want to play QB for me,” he said. “So, we’re trying to recruit players at every position that have a chance, and then, if you keep getting enough players that have the raw material and you do a good job developing them, then you’re bound to have some draft picks at some point. I think that you’re going to see more in the next few years, and it’s been a big focus in our recruiting and our development.”

(AP Photo) | BYU defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (95) tries to knock down a pass from Southern California quarterback Kedon in a 2019 game in Provo. Tonga is expected to be one of several Cougars taken in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft.

Develop. Develop. Develop.

And that’s where BYU staff has been increasingly successful: through development.

Among the players who annually commit to BYU, the bulk are three-star recruits. The Cougars occasionally grab a four-star, but three is the average. The goal, of course, is to develop those three stars into something more by the time they are upperclassmen.

The prime example of a three-star recruit that went on to find success in Provo?

Wilson.

The Corner Canyon product was under-recruited by most programs, including his beloved hometown Utes. So, instead of having the opportunity to play for his favorite team, Wilson found himself playing for its rival.

After the success Wilson had during the 2020 season, in which he totaled 3,692 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and only three interceptions, Roderick’s phone lit up almost immediately with NFL scouts calling to get more info on the Draper native. For a while, it was exhausting, Roderick said.

“There was a minute there where I was spending so much time on it, it was eating into my time here,” Roderick said. “I’m happy to do it, of course, for him. I’m proud of him, happy for him, but yeah, there’s a lot of teams that like him. I don’t know when he’s going to go, but I know there’s a lot of teams that really like him.”

However, Roderick said the BYU staff will continue to look at under-recruited and overlooked athletes to bring to Provo — and the coaching staff’s effort in recruiting.

Sitake must get a lot of the credit here.

He is now in his sixth year at the helm of BYU football, which means the Cougar roster is now filled with his recruits. Remember, many players who commit to BYU choose to serve a two-year church mission before enrolling.

And that’s another hump the BYU staff has to overcome: mission legs.

After returning from their respective missions, most athletes redshirt a year to get their legs back under them. For those who come back throughout the school year, they may grayshirt during the fall before enrolling in January.

“Seeing the guys that were involved in recruiting Brady Christensen, for example, that was a great job by everyone involved in recruiting him and then everybody involved in developing him,” Roderick said. “And he was an undersized guy that was super athletic and there were some coaches here that saw a vision of what he was going to be in five years. You can say that about Dax Milne and Zach and a bunch of other guys.”

At the end of the day, Sitake will continue to make the NFL a staple of his recruiting pitches: “If you come play at BYU you can play at the next level.” And the players who are NFL-bound from the 2020 team will certainly help make the sell more compelling.

“I think we’ll be able to continue it,” Sitake said. “Like I said, we have a lot of guys that will be able to join the NFL this year and I believe we’ll have some more next year. I’ve been saying that for the last couple of years not, that I think we have a good group of guys that can make it to the NFL and make a difference there for their dreams.”

NFL DRAFT

All times Mountain

When • Thursday, April 29, 6 p.m.; Friday April 30, 5 p.m.; Saturday, May 1, 10 a.m.

TV • Ch. 4, ESPN, NFL Network


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