Eye on the Y: Takeaways from first week of practice, Suamataia pushing to start, and McChesney’s last stand

Plus: Gunner Romney’s conversations with Zach Wilson helped bring him back and Jaren Hall discusses his future.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wide receivers Gunner Romney (18) and Puka Nacua, (12) on day 1 of BYU Football Fall Camp, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

Remember the buildup to the 2020 season, when Zach Wilson was going into his second year as the Cougars’ starting quarterback?

Well, the opening week of fall camp this year felt a lot like it did back then.

The last time BYU had this many veterans on the team was in 2020, when the team returned 70% of its production — good for 43rd in the country. This year, the team returns 85% of its production, the most in the nation.

For BYU, this season should be about capitalizing on that rare level of experience at an important time for the program.

Back in 2020, BYU was at a crossroads. From 2017 to ’19, the Cougars went 18-21 and never had a season with over seven wins. Then, Wilson won 11 games and changed the recent perception of the program.

This year, it is a similar situation. BYU is set to head into the Big 12 in 2023 and finds itself in a period of change. It is a healthier program, but one still in need of a bump in the national standings before moving into the Power Five. Maybe this year BYU can again ride a second-year quarterback and loads of veteran talent to another double-digit win season.

If BYU can do it, it would put the program in the same breath as Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Coastal Carolina. Those are the only programs currently eligible to have three consecutive 10-win seasons. Some of that is skewed by COVID — since a number of teams did not play enough games to qualify for 10 wins in 2020. But even if we went back to 2019, the number of teams eligible is under 10.

This season is a lot like 2020. It is about the program taking the next step behind a uniquely veteran-laden group. And the blueprint and foundation started in the Wilson era. It doesn’t come around often.

A freshman breaking into the offensive line?

BYU’s offensive line goes eight deep with players who have started games against Power Five opponents. So, with five spots open to start, it stands to reason that a freshman with no experience shouldn’t be in the mix to crack the rotation.

Yet, the early returns at BYU’s fall camp show that it might happen.

Kingsley Suamataia, a five-star freshman transfer from Oregon, spent almost his entire time working with the first team at practice this week. He oscillated between left and right tackle along with Harris LeChance and Blake Freeland.

“[He has] freakish athleticism,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. “I’ve never seen anything like it ever. He’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen at offensive line.”

Here is why it would potentially make sense to start Suamataia this year. After this season, BYU will lose at least two — probably more — linemen. So giving game experience to a freshman would be good for continuity going into 2023.

Also, there might be little risk by starting Suamataia. He would be surrounded by four veterans who would help him along with the learning curve. If he struggles, BYU has plenty of available options with experience it could quickly plug in. Plus, BYU intends on playing more than five lineman in a single game anyway.

BYU has had a history of starting young players on the offensive line — mostly out of need — and it paying off. James Empey was a four-year starter. Freeland was also a freshman starter in 2019.

McChesney’s last stand

This is a big camp for plenty of backups. We have already written about what this August means for a guy like Jacob Conover, auditioning to be the Big 12 quarterback for the program.

But it’s also important for a guy like Jackson McChesney. He will not be the starting running back this year, that would be Cal transfer Chris Brooks. McChesney is instead fighting to be in the second or third slot.

This might be his last real look by the coaching staff. This is his fourth year in the program and he is starting to feel the heat from younger guys behind him like Miles Davis. If he can’t earn a spot behind Brooks and Lopini Katoa at the end of this season, there might not be a clear path for him to earn playing time next year either.

He got multiple reps in practice this week behind Brooks. In his chances, he made explosive plays. By Sept. 3, McChesney needs to be the clear-cut favorite ahead of Davis for this to be a successful camp.

Other reading from last week

How some old conversations with Zach Wilson convinced Gunner Romney to return to BYU

‘That’s my dream, right?’: BYU quarterback Jaren Hall discusses his NFL aspirations