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Deep inside Kalani Sitake’s desk, there is this small handwritten notebook. It’s not the most organized. It’s really more of a collection of scattered notes Sitake has hoarded throughout the years.
In it, there are old gameplans dating back to his time at Eastern Arizona and Southern Utah. There are half-baked ideas and scratched-out memos. And from time to time, Sitake will look to it for guidance.
These days, there is a particular section Sitake has been re-reading religiously. Dated in 2011, the section is a stream of consciousness from when he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Utah. It has observations from when Utah made the jump from the Mountain West to the Pac-12.
Sitake, in his notes for the future, emphasized how Utah needed to add depth to compete at the Power Five level.
“I remember this huge increase in resources,” Sitake said. “But I also remember all the difficulties and the roadblocks we were trying to overcome. We were playing a more difficult schedule and we [had] to rely on some backups to play.”
Turns out, those notes were quite prescient. Over a decade later, Sitake finds himself in a remarkably similar position: the head coach of a BYU football program making the jump from an independent to the Power Five.
And this is crunch time for Sitake as National Signing Day arrives Wednesday. In the final offseason before BYU enters the Big 12, this signing class will be the first step in adding the depth the Cougars need. With a schedule in 2023 that promises the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State, this class will be important in cushioning the blow.
After all, Sitake learned the hard way what an introduction to the Power Five can look like without depth. Utah went from a 10-win season in 2010, to winning an average of just six games for the next three years. It took the program five years to build depth strong enough to get back to a 10-win pace.
“You’ve got to have depth, it’s a grinding schedule [to move to the Power Five],” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said back in 2015. “That’s what we [worked] on for five years — getting our roster upgraded.”
So Sitake is using this offseason as an all-out blitz to build depth. He is using the newfound weapon of being a Power Five team to recruit players who would normally look elsewhere. He wants to land four-and five-star recruits at a more consistent pace.
He knows this signing class, no matter how good, will not soften the blow completely. But it may salvage BYU from being in the doldrums the first few seasons.
“I’ve been through this rodeo already,” Sitake said. “We can’t have a huge gap from one-to-two. Or one-to-three. We have to play quality depth.”
Recruiting a higher level player
Recruits have always loved Sitake and his avuncular style. The stories about what he is like on the recruiting trail are exactly what you would expect for a head coach who has tried to make his name synonymous with “family.”
For example, Peter Falaniko, an offensive lineman in this signing class, remembers Sitake inviting his entire family for breakfast at LaVell Edwards Stadium before he committed. By the end of the meal, Sitake was down by Falaniko’s younger siblings telling stories about his life. Football was never mentioned.
But even if recruits connected with the head coach, not being in the Power Five was a hurdle. As an Independent, BYU couldn’t guarantee a competitive schedule or a realistic chance of being in the College Football Playoff. For some, that didn’t matter. For the high-end recruits, it played a role.
“I don’t think there’s a question we lost recruits in the past because we weren’t a member of a Power Five conference,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said.
How that manifested isn’t necessarily obvious. BYU is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons. But the depth is a question mark. BYU’s recruiting classes have ranked No. 84, 81 and 71 nationally in the last three years, according to 247Sports. That is not high enough to build out an entire roster of talent that can be competitive in the Power Five.
For reference, Iowa State had a top 60 class each of the last three seasons and ranked No. 31 this year. That program went just 7-6 in the Big 12 in 2021.
Even last year, BYU saw cracks in its depth. It played seven Power Five programs in 2021 and lost several starters. By the end of the season, the program couldn’t beat UAB — a Conference USA school that didn’t even have a program several years ago.
So the priority for BYU is being more competitive with four and five-star players. This signing class is already rated No. 56 nationally, per 247Sports. It features four-star recruits like Cody Hagen and Aisea Moa. Both had offers from Power Five schools Stanford, Arizona and Utah.
It also has Kingsley Suamataia, a five-star freshman who originally committed to Oregon.
“The Big 12 was a big part of what the coaches used to recruit me,” said Parker Kingston, a member of the 2022 class who committed to BYU over Air Force. “Power Five football is big time.”
After this class, BYU is being more competitive with who it is offering. 23 players are outside of Utah. And 13 have four-stars or higher, according to 247Sports.
“It elevates the program,” said Henry Klegg, a 2023 four-star recruit who has offers from USC, West Virginia and Oregon. “The Power Five is important. It opens more opportunities to be seen, especially for the NFL.”
National Signing Day as a first step
Nobody expects BYU’s 2022 recruiting class, which will be finalized on Wednesday, to be the cure all. BYU will have growing pains and the depth won’t be there immediately.
Holmoe knows that. He sees the transition to the Big 12 as a gradual process. The athletic department will slowly invest in building a bigger recruiting staff for Sitaki, one more comparable with a Big 12 program.
Right now, BYU only has two main recruiters, Jack Damuni and Jason Ah You. When you look at a place like Texas, the full-time recruiting staff can run into the dozens.
“These Power Five schools will send you a graphic a week, or sometimes a few per week,” said Ethan Thompson, who is being recruited by Big 12 schools like Kansas and Iowa State. “BYU doesn’t really have recruiting assistants sending out lots of things. It’s smaller.”
Even though BYU is still building its infrastructure, it doesn’t diminish the importance of this class. They will represent the first line of depth that Sitaki’s notebook forewarned about.
There is no blueprint for bringing your program into the Power Five. But, with notes from his past, Sitake is going to start the process. He’s seen others do it. He’s been around it.
But this time, it’s his journey. And his path is starting with recruiting.