BYU football’s roster ahead of National Signing Day: Who’s coming back, who’s leaving and the team’s biggest needs

BYU will return 18 starters, but the focus will be on adding depth in the last offseason before the Big 12.

(Trevor Christensen | Special to The Tribune) Brigham Young University's Jaren Hall runs the ball against Virginia during the second half at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Provo.

If last year was all about roster upheaval for BYU, then let the theme of 2022 be continuity. Whereas BYU replaced 13 starters in 2021, this year the program will return 18 of its 22 main contributors.

That being said, continuity doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of questions about the roster. BYU has to add depth at several positions. If last year exposed anything, it showed BYU’s back-end talent is not good enough to compete consistently at the Power Five level. So this offseason — the last before the program joins the Big 12 — a spotlight will be on head coach Kalani Sitake as he acquires and develops talent beyond the starting 11.

Here is a breakdown of how BYU’s roster looks ahead of National Signing Day this Wednesday.

Who is leaving?

The most obvious, and significant, loss is Tyler Allgeier. BYU’s All-American running back decided to forgo his remaining year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Allgeier ran for 1,606 yards and 23 touchdowns last year — a program record. His level of production will be nearly impossible to replace with one person.

Two other losses are the wide receiver combo of Neil Pau’u and Samson Nacua. Both signed with an agent. Pau’u led the team in catches and had over 500 yards receiving. Nacua, in his limited starts, accounted for four touchdowns.

The last domino to fall is James Empey. The four-year starter on the offensive line missed six games last year, so BYU has some experience replacing him. That said, whenever a long-term center leaves, it is difficult to overcome.

The defense only has one graduate, Uriah Leiataua. He started the season-opener but went in and out of the starting lineup. Leiataua has not signed with an agent and it is unclear whether he will pursue an NFL career.

Who is coming back?

Gunner Romney tops this list for BYU. The wide receiver surprised people when he announced he would use his COVID year of eligibility and return next year. Romney had an injury-riddled season in 2021, but was a potential NFL draft pick.

His return is a big deal for the wide receiver group. If Romney had decided to leave, BYU would have returned only one starter. Now, the program has more of a cushion to bring along first-time starters like Keanu Hill and Chase Roberts.

The other major development is the return of offensive lineman Joe Tukuafu. The offensive line was already in good shape before Tukuafa used his COVID year of eligibility, but now the group will return four of five starters.

What are we unsure about?

BYU had eight players hit the transfer portal this offseason. Six of them haven’t found a new home. This means six could theoretically return to the program.

Backup quarterback Baylor Romney put his name in the portal, but those around the program understand there is some chance he could come back. Another wild card is wide receiver Chris Jackson, who is also in the portal. Jackson could have vied for a starting position with the departure of Pau’u and Nacua.

What are the biggest needs on offense?

With quarterback Jaren Hall returning, the two biggest needs are running backs and depth.

At the running back spot, BYU will likely replace Allgeier with a committee of transfers and returning players.

Lopini Katoa has made several starts throughout his career at running back and is a favorite to win the job. Cal transfer Chris Brooks will also be in the mix to take the lion’s share of the carries. Younger backs like Miles Davis and Jackson McChesney could sneakily compete for time. All four will likely get carries. After all, replacing 23 touchdowns is no small feat.

As for the rest of the offense, BYU will be focused on adding depth. In the wide receiver room, Romney and Puka Nacua will anchor the starting positions. But there are younger receivers that will play larger roles.

Keanu Hill, a former Texas recruit, is entering his third year and could make a jump. Chase Roberts, although coming off an injury last year, is a natural target at 6-foot-4. And former Mater Dei product Kody Epps could compete for time in spring practice.

At tight end, BYU is looking for ways to build off its core of Isaac Rex and Dallin Holker. But the priority is getting Rex healthy again after a season-ending injury.

Lastly, the offensive line will be interesting simply because there are several experienced players competing for one open spot. Seven offensive lineman on the roster have started a game at BYU. That does not include five-star signee Kingsley Suamataia. So, the final spot up for grabs will likely become a battle between senior Harris LeChance, sophomore Campbell Barrington and Suamataia.

What are the biggest needs on defense?

Looking at the depth chart, BYU is returning all of its starters from a year ago. But make no mistake, defense is where the program has the most work to do.

The defensive line is the biggest concern. The Cougars lacked consistent playmakers last season. This year, the obvious candidates to step up are Tyler Batty and Gabe Summers.

The safeties are also an unknown. Malik Moore is coming back and had three interceptions. Outside of that, BYU needs support. Chaz Ah You and George Udo have had spurts where they are consistent. But Udo has a history of injuries and Ah You has slid back and forth from linebacker.

The linebacker group is the most talented unit. Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar remain BYU’s best NFL prospects. But what happens if they get hurt? Maybe Ben Bywater will continue his breakout year from 2021 and Ah You could also help out there.