Sione Finau barely said a word on the first day of BYU’s spring practice this year. He had too much on his mind, too many thoughts that had morphed into a chorus of doubt.
As he went through defensive drills, he looked around at the phalanx of players at nearly every position. The running backs room, which he used to call home, had 10 players competing for a handful of spots. The defensive backs room, his current residence after a position change, had 22 players on the spring roster and several transfers en route.
There was no path for Finau to crack the rotation anymore. He had known it for some time. But the visualization hit home. The same coaches who recruited Finau, who he had rushed nearly 500 yards for, had over-recruited, and he was a casualty.
“I told them straight up, ‘I think I should transfer,’” Finau said. “...I think the numbers [on the roster] are going to play into it a lot. You know, the COVID year, it pushes all these guys back a year. It’s kind of not fair. So yeah, the [coaches] have to have conversations with guys about this.”
Finau, a member of Kalani Sitake’s first signing class, put his name in the transfer portal just a week into spring practice. And while he may have been the first, he is just starting what will be a wave of transfers over the coming weeks for BYU.
The NCAA allows teams to carry 123 players by the start of fall camp, 85 players are allowed to be on scholarship.
The Cougars are carrying a bloated roster, with 132 players this spring. It is partly a hangover from the first season during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the NCAA gave every player a blanket extra year of eligibility. But it is also a product of the coaching staff over-recruiting.
Either way, it means the Cougars are going to start letting players go to stay within the NCAA roster limits.
“We are doing exit interviews,” Sitake said as the team ended spring camp. “Allowing players to enter the portal if they want to play some more. Just giving them some feedback on where they stand on the team.
“We are probably starting to see some of [guys transferring] earlier the last couple of weeks. I just don’t ever want players to guess what coaches are thinking. We have to tell them good or bad.”
It is not uncommon for teams to carry more people than allowed in spring, but BYU has more players than usual. For reference, the University of Utah is carrying 117 players. Utah State is carrying 100.
Part of the issue is something every program will deal with. COVID-19 allowed programs to temporarily have a larger roster to make room for players using an extra year of eligibility. Now, the normal limits have been reinstated. Most programs will deal with at least some fallout from that, seeing scholarship players walk.
“I’m sure we will have some transfer portal guys this spring… to open up some spots in the fall,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
But the part unique to BYU is that they have continued to bring in transfers and high school signees without yet seeing the departure of other scholarship players. To a degree, it was by design. In the wake of injury ravaged seasons, BYU needed to bring in more options to supplement the sidelined players — particularly this spring, when a number of players sat out entirely.
But with those players come back in the fall, others are starting to see the writing on the wall. Especially as BYU is expected to have several more transfers and high school athletes arrive in the summer.
Last week, Viliami Tausinga, an inside linebacker, entered his name into the transfer portal. Similar to Finau, he looked around at a linebacking corps that is a dozen deep and knew he had to leave. He is the second to leave during spring camp, and the ninth since the end of 2021
“We do have some [good players] having to transfer,” Finau said. “So wherever they go, you know, they can play anywhere.”
Finau doesn’t hold it against the coaching staff that he has to leave. He says they are helping him find a home in the Mountain West Conference, or maybe an FCS school, to play running back.
But he does believe his own talents were overshadowed by the glut of players brought in. It is something that is happening across the country, but it’s being acutely felt at BYU.
“It was kind of tough,” Finau said of his experience. “I appreciate them and everything that they did for me. ... But my passion, you know, was slowly dimming down.”
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