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What does BYU need from the transfer portal?

The NCAA Transfer Portal opens up on Dec. 4. BYU should be ready for some roster movement this winter.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kalani Sitake as BYU hosts Texas Tech, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.

After a seven-loss season, BYU has its work cut out for it this offseason in closing the talent gap with the rest of the Big 12.

A big part of that will be improving the high school recruiting. The last time BYU signed a top 50 high school class was in 2016. Since then, head coach Kalani Sitake’s average class ranked No. 72 in the country.

That won’t cut it in the Big 12. Just last year, excluding Texas and Oklahoma, the average high school recruiting class in the league ranked 46th.

Still, while the high school recruiting needs to be the lifeblood of BYU’s talent pool, the transfer portal can fill in depth. BYU should be active again this year when the portal opens Monday.

Quarterback

The Cougars were busy in the transfer portal last year while mining for a quarterback. The staff went through 25 names a year ago and finally landed on USC and Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis. The Cougars also brought in junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff after Slovis signed.

The need for a quarterback was significant as BYU lost two-year starter Jaren Hall and didn’t have many options behind him.

This year, the need isn’t as dire. Retzlaff is supposed to return next year and has shown flashes of being a Big 12 starter.

Overall, Retzlaff threw for 648 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions during his first seaon in Provo. He made some critical errors, including a pick-six at the goal line against Oklahoma that ended BYU’s upset hopes. But growing pains are expected for a young quarterback.

Beyond the passing, Retzlaff’s mobility showed he can be a fit for this offense — overcoming offensive line issues and opening up lanes in the running game.

Still, has Retzlaff shown enough to think he can be the hands-down starter in year two of the Big 12? Maybe not.

BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) passes the ball in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma State Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, in Stillwater, Okla. (AP Photo/Mitch Alcala)

Head coach Kalani Sitake indicated that BYU will at least look around for another quarterback who can compete in spring and fall camp.

“We will look at the places we want to improve on and get that done,” Sitake said.

In the room next year, BYU will have Retzlaff and Ryder Burton. Burton just turned 18 years old and enrolled early last year out of Springville. He has a big arm and a lot of tools. He should be in the mix to compete this spring, too.

Nick Billoups and Cade Fennegan are also options but haven’t cracked the rotation.

Offensive line

The offensive line struggled this year. And to make matters worse, it will be losing some of its key pieces.

Starters Paul Maile and Kingsley Suamataia are likely gone. Starting center Connor Pay could also leave.

Right now, guard Caleb Etienne said he wants to come back in 2023. But the amount that BYU is losing alone requires an influx of immediate talent. Not to mention, this group underperformed and will need to get significantly better in 2024.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Kingsley Suamataia (78) as BYU hosts Texas Tech, NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.

There are some prospects in the room that could develop. Jake Eichorn, a Weber State transfer who will be a redshirt junior next year, falls into that category. Sam Dawe is talented and Peter Falaniko is there, too. But BYU will still be looking for linemen in the portal.

Cornerback

The defense is in a precarious spot at multiple positions. It is hard to say which room has the most need — but cornerback is certainly up there.

BYU is losing Eddie Heckard, arguably its best defensive player, and Kamden Garrett. It could have Jakob Robinson back for another season, but he won’t have a lot of experience around him.

Marcus McKenzie is young and helped out on special teams this year. Mory Bamba saw some reps. Jayden Dunlap and Caleb Christensen can help, too. But after Robinson, there is no clear answer.

Now, there is some good news. BYU had success with bringing in transfers and them contributing immediately. Heckard and Garrett were examples.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) BYU cornerback Jakob Robinson (0) scores on an interception against Cincinnati during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Provo.

But the bad news is, both of those players came from defensive coordinator Jay Hill’s system from Weber State and knew the scheme from day one. That won’t be the case anymore in the transfer portal (unless Hill goes back to Ogden to get a corner).

Hill’s scheme is both complicated and heavily reliant on cornerbacks to match up. It is important whoever replaces Heckard and Garrett are the right fit.

Linebacker

There is a complicated equation in the linebacker room right now, especially as it relates to what Ben Bywater wants to do.

Going into this season, he was treating it like his last. But Bywater was injured during the Kansas game and missed most of the Big 12 schedule.

If he comes back, BYU has an experienced piece to build around there. Oregon transfer Harrison Taggart can improve, but is a young, faster linebacker who is part of the future. Siale Esera and Ace and Micah Kaufusi also fit the Jay Hill scheme well.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young cornerback Marcus McKenzie (32) with linebacker Harrison Taggart (11), celebrates after picking up a Southern Utah Thunderbirds fumble, in football a between the Southern Utah Thunderbirds and the Brigham Young Cougars, at Lavell Edwards Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

But if Bywater doesn’t come back, BYU is left with a lot of youth and not a lot of experience. Taggart is a nice piece, but probably can’t anchor a Big 12 defense yet.

BYU will lose Utah State transfer AJ Vongphachanh, who held things down when Bywater left. The Cougars could use another veteran transfer in the room (like Vongphachanh last year) and mix in some of the younger players.

Defensive line

BYU needs an infusion of talent on this line.

This group wasn’t effective last year in getting to the quarterback. BYU ranked dead last in the FBS football through 11 weeks with just 10 sacks. The Cougars continued a streak of not having a double-digit player in sacks since 2015.

(Photography by Nate Edwards/BYU) new BYU defensive line coach Sione Po'uha talks to his team during spring practice on March 23, 2023.

With Hill’s defense, getting sacks is a priority. And he seemed to think that almost a decade under former coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki — where BYU dropped eight and didn’t get to the quarterback — taught the pass rushers bad habits.

Hill clearly needs his own players in the room to get more pressure. That will come from the high school ranks as he shapes recruiting. But it also could come from the portal.

One note in this room is defensive end Isaiah Bagnah said he hasn’t decided if he will return or leave this offseason.

Other positions of need

Running back: BYU has gone to the portal the last two years to get starters in Chris Brooks (Cal) and Aidan Robbins (UNLV). This year, it could finally have some stability if Robbins stays. Plus, freshman LJ Martin showed he could be the future. If BYU can keep those two players, the running back spot won’t be as critical. But it will lose Deion Smith (a pass catching option).

Wide receiver: Again, if BYU can keep the current guys in the room that would be ideal. Darius Lassister, Keelan Marion could use a second year in the offense. Plus, Chase Roberts and Kody Epps coming back would be a boost. But if it can’t keep everyone, then BYU might need to look around at what is out there. Particularly, if it can get a guy who can create separation at the Power Five level. A name on the roster that BYU has to keep is JoJo Phillips. He redshirted this year but caught a touchdown against Iowa State. He has the type of talent BYU needs in the Big 12.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University wide receiver Keelan Marion celebrates play with wide receiver JoJo Phillips during football practice Aug. 8, 2023 in Provo.

Safety: Talan Alfrey was hurt most of the year. Crew Wakley was a nice surprise in his absence. But the depth wasn’t always there. Now, when Micah Harper returns from an ACL injury and Alfrey and Wakley are healthy, BYU will be in a good spot. But it can’t risk being that undermanned at safety again.