BYU football’s signing day: Balancing the transfer portal, losing out on LDS recruits and a new-look defense

BYU signed 16 players, 13 out of high school, in the December signing period on Wednesday

BYU ushered in the first part of its 2023 signing class on Wednesday, with 16 signees coming to Provo. It is currently ranked the 71st class in the nation, according to 247Sports, and near the bottom of the new Big 12.

That said, Kalani Sitake intends to add several players in the February signing period that will likely boost those ranks. Right now, this class is highlighted by four-star tight end Jackson Bowers out of Arizona. It also includes a quarterback in three-star prospect Ryder Burton out of Springville, Utah.

Here are five thoughts on national signing day:

1. New conference, same strategy

Some were wondering whether BYU would start to mine the NCAA Transfer Portal more heavily as it moves to the Big 12. It would be one way to add immediate depth, something the program will need if it wants to be competitive in the Big 12 from the jump.

Well, on Wednesday, Sitake said he is still trying to find the balance between hitting the transfer portal and stocking up on long-term high school talent. He hasn’t found it just yet, he admitted. It is a formula that is slightly more complicated at BYU, where many of the program’s top high school recruits go on two-year missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It means many of the Power Five-caliber high school kids BYU may recruit now, won’t be contributors for three, four or even five years into the Big 12 era. It is a long time to ramp up for the Power Five.

That said, Sitake indicated he still wants the backbone of the program’s recruiting to be high school players. This class is an example of that, with all but three commits coming out of the high school ranks.

BYU is expected to add more transfers as this portal window remains open until Jan. 18, but the general point still stands.

“If you look at the portal, we have had some really good success with the guys we bring in,” Sitake said. “There are some programs who have just gone completely portal recruiting only. I think we are going to have some complement of [portal players] to add to our team, but they have to be the right fit. But I don’t think that is going to be the overriding thing. Most of our recruits will come from high school. We won’t do that.”

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick added former Louisville and UNLV running back Aiden Robbins through the transfer portal this cycle. That said, he thinks there are potential dangers to being reliant on the transfer portal even if the alternative is a longer wait.

“The portal is more like free agency. It is more for your immediate needs,” Roderick said. “But we are never going to stop recruiting high school players that we project are going to be good players. I think if you go all-portal all the time, there is a good chance your team will be pretty up and down from year to year. We are trying to have a nice balance there. The majority of our class is going to be high school players. A lot of them are going on missions and they will be good players in a couple of years.”

2. BYU gets a quarterback

BYU didn’t sign a quarterback in the 2022 class, but started the 2023 class with a local product out of Springville.

Ryder Burton, an under-recruited kid just down the road from Provo, will enroll early in January and join a quarterback room that is a bit uncertain right now. With two-year starter Jaren Hall’s status still in limbo, and the possibility of a transfer quarterback still in play, Burton will join a core of Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, Cade Fennegan and Nick Billoups for now.

Roderick said Burton might take some time to be truly ready to contribute. He comes from a different style of offense than what BYU runs, but is a natural thrower.

“He is going to need to develop,” Roderick said. “He played in an offense in high school that is very old school with I-formation and being under center for most of the game. Adapting to our style of play is going to take a little bit of work. But the arm talent is there and the work ethic he displays leads me to believe he is going to be a really good player here.”

Burton came into the facility before he signed and knows just about the entire offense by Roderick’s estimation.

“He is here as much as our assistant coaches are,” Roderick said. “... He came to every camp we held in recent memory.”

3. Losing out of high-profile members of the LDS Church

This recruiting cycle is also marked by several high-profile recruits from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who did not sign with BYU.

This included four-star tight end Walker Lyons, who is undecided after decommitting from Stanford, and four-star edge rusher Hunter Clegg, who is going to Utah. Spencer Fano, the brother of former BYU edge rusher Logan Fano, also committed to Utah. Clegg and Fano were two of the top three recruits out of Utah, per 247Sports.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe said joining the Big 12 will give BYU less of an excuse to not bring in the top prospects from the faith.

Sitake, however, pushed back slightly to the expectation BYU should bring in every top prospect who is a member of the LDS Church.

“If you look at it through history, BYU hasn’t had a monopoly on all the LDS talent,” Sitake said. “There are guys who have gone other places. To assume that if they are a member of the Church and this is where they want to be — we just have to make sure they are a right fit whether they are members or not. ... We have to look at our members first, but also try to communicate with them. We have a great staff that can recruit the best of them and if that means we can get more of them, then great.”

4. Edge rusher need

Looking at this recruiting class, BYU tried to fill its need with pass rushers. It did so both through the transfer portal and with high school players.

Siale Esera is a top-10 overall recruit in the state and is viewed as a potential disruptor on the line if that’s where he plays. BYU also signed Isaiah Bagnah as a Boise State transfer (where current assistant defensive coach Kelly Poppinga just came from). Bagnah had 10 sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss in four years at Boise.

Both of these additions speak to the new style of defense new defensive coordinator Jay Hill would like to play. He wants to blitz more, and said he looked at the tape of the current recruits to see if they would match his scheme. He compared Bagnah to a classic BYU defensive player, like a Kyle Van Noy or a Fred Warner.

Overall, BYU signed five players who could be on the line.

Hill also noted that he didn’t see much wavering from defensive recruits even with the coaching turnover on that side of the ball.

“Most of them committed to Kalani and his program,” Hill said. “The coaching staff change I don’t think interrupted at all what we are trying to get accomplished here. I didn’t see any wavering at all due to that.”

5. Recruiting players who can play multiple positions

Sitake mentioned it multiple times as a sticking point. He wanted guys in his class to be able to play multiple sports or both sides of the ball. Tight end Saimone Davis out of Texas, for example, played tight end in high school but is projected as a defensive lineman at BYU.

There are multiple players in this class who fit that category.

“Defensively, offensively we want to be able to use guys at all different spots,” Sitake said. “We have been able to cross-train guys to see if they can play on the offensive side and defensive side.”

Signing class:

Ryder Burton - Quarterback - Springville, Utah

Jackson Bowers - Tight end - Mesa, Arizona

Siale Esera - Defensive edge - Provo, Utah

Ethan Thomason - offensive line - Fort Collins, Colorado

Josiah “Jojo” Phillips - Wide Receiver - Chatsworth, California

Miles Hall - Athlete - Salt Lake City, Utah

Saimone Davis - Tight end and defensive edge - Colleyville, Texas

Owen Borg - Linebacker - Draper, Utah

Pierson Watson - Linebacker - Flagstaff, Arizona

Pokaiaua Haunga - Athlete - Provo, Utah

Talitu’i Pututau - Defensive line - Salt Lake City, Utah

Matthew Fredrick - Tight end - Salt Lake City, Utah

David Tangilanu - Defensive edge - Menlo Park, California

Jayden Dunlap - Cornerback - Cerritos College

Isaiah Bagnah - Defensive Edge - Boise State

Aidan Robbins - Running back - UNLV