5 takeaways from BYU’s first depth chart: Freshmen, QB intrigue and third options in the secondary

There are still many unknowns as the Cougars prepare to open the season.

(Jaren Wilkey | BYU) BYU freshman running back LJ Martin participates in fall camp on Aug. 04, 2023.

BYU’s first depth chart of the 2023 season is out as the season opener against Sam Houston kicks off on Saturday.

With around 60 new faces this year, the first depth chart is just a first draft for the Cougars rather than a final product. But this one might take that to the extreme with 19 “OR” designations, meaning a position’s pecking order is not solidified. That is among the most unknowns in the Big 12 (Baylor has a depth chart with 29).

Here are five takeaways from the opening data point of the year.

1. It is getting late early in the secondary

BYU’s safety position was supposed to be a strength for new coordinator Jay Hill. He might not have all the pieces he needs to compete in the Big 12 just yet, but he inherited a safety room that was experienced and explosive.

Micah Harper was a top-end strong safety in the league, according to PFF. And Talan Alfrey figured to be much improved this year after playing over 500 snaps in 2022.

But come Week 1, Hill will have neither Harper (ACL) nor Alfrey (shoulder) available to him. Instead, he will have to dip into his third-string before even heading to Arkansas in Week 3.

For now, Hill will try out Ethan Slade, Crew Wakley and Raider Damuni back there. Head coach Kalani Sitake said Slade might have surprised Hill in camp. Still, Slade alone won’t replace the production of Harper and Alfrey.

“He has really taken to Jay Hill’s coaching,” Sitake said of Slade. “Obviously it hurts not having Micah and not having Talan. But we will pick up where those guys left off. From where we are in fall camp to Week 1, I feel really confident in Ethan and those other guys on the depth chart.”

BYU will pair whoever is at strong safety with veteran Malik Moore. Maybe a silver lining to this is BYU will get to see true freshman Damuni very early on. He just came back from a mission but was a highly recruited player. It looks like he will be thrown into Big 12 life quickly.

Sitake said he doesn’t expect Alfrey to be out for the season. But no timeline was provided for a return.

2. Freshmen populate the depth chart

Two names stand out at first glance: LJ Martin and Jojo Phillips.

Both are freshmen who cracked the depth chart after their first fall camp. Martin went into a crowded room and earned third-string duties at the running back position behind veterans Aidan Robbins and Deion Smith.

Phillips will get time with Parker Kingston and Kody Epps at the receivers spot.

They aren’t the only true-freshman to see their name on the two-deep, but it is important how they did it. Wide receiver was one of the more competitive rooms going into fall camp, yet Phillips emerged as an option. And Martin had to unseat players like Hinckley Ropati and Miles Davis.

It indicates the belief in them to contribute quickly. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said Martin might be one of the top playmakers on the roster.

“LJ is one of our best players and you’re going to see a lot of him this year,” Roderick said on BYUtv.

Similarly, Sitake went out of his way to compliment Phillips.

“He is going to be really, really good,” Sitake said. “And he gets better every day. The sky is the limit. He is really tall and he is athletic. And he has got tons of speed with great ball skills. So that works out for him.”

Around the depth chart, Jackson Bowers made the cut in his first season at tight end. Ace Kaufusi, Siale Esera, Marcus McKenzie and Damuni made it as freshmen, too.

But keep an eye out for Martin and Phillips.

3. Retzlaff gets the nod, but don’t rule out Fennegan

The battle to find a backup quarterback is over. Junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff is Roderick’s guy and will get the reps if something happens to starter Kedon Slovis.

But it might not be that simple. Redshirt sophomore Cade Fennegan is listed as the third-stringer and may still play at different points this season.

Fennegan already used his redshirt year. Retzlaff has not. BYU would like to keep Retzlaff’s redshirt season this year, which means he can play in no more than four games. If there was a situation where Retzlaff could jeopardize that redshirt year, look for Fennegan to play.

Obviously it will be situational, but these are not the standard third-string duties for Fennegan this year.

4. BYU finally finds a kicker

The long-awaited announcement of who will kick field goals has a resolution: Boise State transfer Will Ferrin.

After the kicking game was in doubt for much of the summer and the spring, special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga is going with the kicker he brought over from Boise.

Ferrin has not kicked in a game yet. He was a kickoff specialist at Boise and sat behind a veteran. But he did enough to beat out walk-on Matthias Dunn.

“It was close,” Poppinga said on BYUtv. “Actually after all the kicks from the start of fall camp to last week, they were exactly the same percentage: 84% is what they were in fall camp. I think that is a really good number. I think most goals for fall camps is around 80.

“... We just thought Will had a little bit more experience and a little more pop on the ball. Could elevate his ball ... so it doesn’t get blocked in the middle.”

5. Offensive line remains unsettled

There are three starters set on the offensive line: Paul Maile, Connor Pay and Kingsley Suamataia.

Other than that, it is up for grabs. Even those starters aren’t completely in place. Maile and Pay could go back and forth at center and right guard. Beyond that, the right tackle and left guard positions are also in flux.

Expect BYU to show a couple of different lineups in the early weeks of the year as the competition continues.

As of right now, the main five are Maile, Pay, Suamataia, Weylin Lapuaho and Caleb Etienne. But players like Ian Fitzgerald and Brayden Keim are still hunting for snaps.