No question about it, coach Sitake has put a premium on improving our level of accountability, discipline, buy-in, whatever you want to call it. —BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb
PROVO — As expected in the wake of a dismal 4-9 season, there have been major changes at BYU on the coaching staff and in the culture under head coach Kalani Sitake, who is entering his third season at the helm.
The Cougars have almost an entirely new offensive coaching staff, led by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, and the players are being held to a higher standard.
The program’s transformation began even before last season ended, assistant head coach Ed Lamb said, but got into full swing during a team meeting two days after the 2017 season-finale — a victory at Hawaii.
“No question about it, coach Sitake has put a premium on improving our level of accountability, discipline, buy-in, whatever you want to call it,” Lamb said. “Players have responded. Goal No. 1 is carrying through the improvement that we’ve had in player commitment. The offseason has been fantastic from an effort standpoint. It’s clear that every person in the program — assistant coaches, head coach, players and support staff — everybody’s discouraged by the results of last year.”
BYU opens spring football practices Monday in preparation for the 2018 campaign, which kicks off Sept. 1 at Arizona.
Lamb knows how success is judged.
“This business is about production,” he said. “Our offensive coaches, defensive coaches, special teams and everybody in this program needs to produce in the fall. That’s where the only analysis that matters is going to take place. While it feels very positive right now and everybody is encouraged by the effort they see going on around them, we understand that there’s still a lot more work to do.”
That work continues with 15 practices, culminating with a Spring Scrimmage & Alumni Day at LaVell Edwards Stadium on April 7 at 11 a.m.
Here are five storylines to follow during spring ball:
Eight is enough. Right?
The Cougars are carrying eight, count ‘em, quarterbacks on their spring roster, in alphabetical order — Stacy Conner, Joe Critchlow, Hayden Griffitts, Beau Hoge, Tanner Mangum, Baylor Romney, Zach Wilson and Kody Wilstead.
BYU quarterback Beau Hoge throws the ball during warmups at Maverik Stadium in Logan Utah on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. Tanner Mangum looks on. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
How will the Cougars manage developing that many QBs and finding a starter?
Critchlow, who ended the 2017 season as the starter, “will probably get a really strong look,” Lamb said.
Both Conner and Wilson are freshmen who signed with BYU last December and will participate in spring ball.
“The fact that they sacrificed the second half of their senior year at their high school and make an advantage for themselves and make a contribution before their true freshman year starts,” Lamb said, “we’ve got to make sure those guys get an honest look and a real evaluation and that we start to put them on some type of anticipated timeline to contribute.”
Mangum has plenty of experience as a starter but struggled much of last season before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury. Hoge also started a couple of games before his season was derailed by injury.
What kind of offense will BYU run?
The answer to that question might depend on who ends up becoming the starting quarterback — a drop-back passer or a dual-threat QB.
Jeff Grimes speaks during the press conference introducing him as the new offensive coordinator for the BYU football program in Provo South on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Lamb said it will involve “how the offense shapes up and whether or not we’re looking for a guy that has a tendency to stand taller in the pocket or whether we decide to get a player in there that has a little more ability to extend plays and extend the pocket on his own and put pressure on the defense with his legs. Spring ball in a lot of ways is to answer a lot of those questions. Those questions still exist as of right now.”
The Cougars have a few experienced playmakers returing who will be looking for more production next season, including Freshman All-American tight end Matt Bushman, wide receiver Micah Simon and running backs Ula Tolutau, Squally Canada, Austin Kafentzis and KJ Hall. Meanwhile, BYU is losing some starting offensive linemen, like four-year starting center Tejan Koroma. But Grimes has extensive experience with developing an offensive line, and there are some some promising O-linemen looking for their chance to play.
BYU suffered an inordinate number of injuries last season, including to starters, and would-be starters like Mangum, tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau, cornerback Troy Warner and linebacker Matt Hadley.
BYU wide receiver Moroni Laulu-Pututau reaches to make a reception against Mississippi State play in Provo at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Hadley, who was a senior last season, has been working out with the Cougars during the offseason and is appealing to the NCAA for another year of eligibility.
“We feel like there’s a very strong case for that,” Lamb said.
Some will be limited during the spring.
"The best way to categorize it would be those who are competing on a full-speed, full-contact basis and everyone else would be in a limited category. Tanner and Moroni will be limited, participating in procedural offensive installation,” Lamb said.
Running back Ula Tolutau will also be participating in the spring on a limited basis. “He’s still working through some lower leg issues,” Lamb said.
BYU defensive back Zayne Anderson pushes Utah running back Zack Moss out of bounds at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
As usual, there are some position changes that will be looked at during the spring.
“We’ve had several on defense that are more experimental in nature as we try to get the best 11 guys on the field,” Lamb said.
Safety Zayne Anderson will be taking reps at outside linebacker, the same position that NFL-bound Fred Warner played last season for the Cougars.
Dayan Ghanwoloku will “take a significant number of reps” at strong safety and Sione Takitaki is moving from defensive end to a boundary linebacker spot.
Newcomers and others who could emerge
BYU defensive back Austin Lee and other players leave the field after losing 40-6 to the Wisconsin Badgers at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
There are plenty of young players and transfers who are poised to make their mark at BYU this fall, including offensive linemen Tristen Hoge, a Notre Dame transfer, and Taipe Vaka, James Empey and Brady Christensen; tight end Joe Tukuafu; running back Zach Katoa; wide receiver Tariq Buchanan; linebackers Christian Folau and AJ Lolohea; and defensive linemen Keanu Saleapaga, Wayne Tei-Kirby and Earl Tuioti-Mariner are expected to make an impact.
Meanwhile, several Cougars who sat out last season or saw limited playing time could make significant contributions — defensive linemen Tevita Mo’unga, safety Austin Lee and linebacker Rhett Sandlin.