I love it. We can do so many different things I think it will be hard for defenses to pick up on. —BYU quarterback Zach Wilson
PROVO — Now that BYU’s spring practices are over, there’s just a few months before the Cougars open the 2018 football season on Sept. 1.
Is last year’s dismal 4-9 record serving as a motivator during the offseason?
“You would sure hope so, right?" said senior fullback Brayden El-Bakri. "I really feel like that everybody’s taking the approach of, the house is on fire and we have to put it out."
Will this attitude of urgency translate to more wins this fall when the Cougars face another daunting schedule featuring road games at Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah?
While it’s way too early to know, here are 10 things we learned from BYU’s spring practices:
1. Culture change
After last season's collapse, things had to change within the program. Coach Kalani Sitake identified what he saw as issues and set out to fix them. That included revamping the offensive coaching staff — led by new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.
With the staff as a whole, there’s been an emphasis on attention to detail, executing cleanly and limiting mistakes.
Has that culture been established?
“No, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve certainly made a lot of ground up in terms of building the right mindset,” Grimes said. “Guys are willing to be coached, they’re willing to work hard but we’re not where we need to be yet. Our culture is moving toward what we want it to be ultimately. With a great summer and a great fall camp, I believe we’ll be there.”
“The core of that culture is to execute,” said quarterback Joe Critchlow, who pointed out the offense didn’t have any turnovers in the spring scrimmage. “It’s a mindset that we have to have collectively, not just one guy. I feel like we’re coming together.”
2. What the new offense looks like
After being hired, the new offensive coaching staff created a new playbook that features multiple looks.
“Some of it comes from my time at LSU, some of it comes all the way back to my time at Boise State in 2000 and different pieces along the way,” Grimes said. “Some of it doesn’t come from me, it comes from the rest of our staff. It’s a conglomeration of a lot of different ideas.”
What do the players think of the new offense?
“I love it,” said quarterback Zach Wilson. “We can do so many different things I think it will be hard for defenses to pick up on.”
“Our run plays are pro style. But other times we’ll split it out. (Passing game coordinator Aaron) Roderick knows how to coach those four verts type of plays. He’s very detailed,” said tight end Matt Bushman. “I think we’ll run that very well. Whatever’s needed in whatever game. If we have to run the ball pro style, if we have to spread out and be quicker than the defense, we’ll go with what’s necessary. That’s the plan.”
“It’s really fast-paced and a lot of attention to detail. Little things matter,” said running back Zach Katoa. “A lot of misdirection. It will make the defense think and keep them on their heels.”
“There’s urgency, especially with the new offensive staff," El-Bakri said. "They’re really trying to instill that in us. Go, go, go, urgency, energy. A lot of speed and tenacity.”
3. Balancing physical play and injuries
One of Sitake’s goals during the spring was to conduct physical practices. The coaches even had the quarterbacks go live and get tackled, so the staff could learn how the QBs respond under duress.
This was done with some trepidation, considering what happened last season — 37 players missed games due to injuries, including 13 starters. In the spring, BYU suffered a few more injuries, notably to tight end Joe Tukuafu and running back Kavika Fonua, although Sitake said his team should be at full strength this fall.
Sitake announced during spring practices a major change — moving practice times from early in the morning to the afternoon. He explained that after doing research, the coaching staff realized that players haven’t been getting enough sleep and have been showing up at practice dehydrated. Sitake is hoping that by changing the practices to later in the day, his players will be rested, hydrated and less susceptible to injuries.
4. Quarterback race narrowed down
BYU opened the spring with eight quarterbacks on the roster. Now that spring ball has concluded, the QB race has essentially been narrowed to sophomore Joe Critchlow, junior Beau Hoge, freshman Zach Wilson and senior Tanner Mangum.
“I will play the best one. I don’t care what year they are, freshman or senior,” Sitake said. “The best one will play.”
A starter will be determined during training camp in August.
Meanwhile, quarterback Jaren Hall is returning home from his mission this summer and will join the program as well.
The coaches and players have said the competition has made all the QBs better.
“It’s been a good, healthy competition. I feel like we’re pushing each other every day,” Hoge said. “It’s been good getting Tanner back in the mix. We’ve all really excelled and made great strides. There’s a lot of room of improvement for all of us.”
5. Position changes and the need for speed
As he always says, Sitake wants the best 11 players on the field. He also wants to see more speed on the defense. In an effort to ensure that is the case, the coaching staff moved players around during the offseason.
Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner switched from cornerback to safety; Sione Takitaki and Zayne Anderson are now linebackers after playing on the defensive line and at safety, respectively, last season.
“Speed helps. For some of the schemes that we’re asking our guys to do, we’re going to need more speed on the field,” Sitake said. “That’s why we’re making some adjustments and trying to get some athleticism. Not to say that the guys that were there aren’t good enough. When you have competition, you get better guys and it breeds a better product on whoever wins the position battle.”
6. Discipline and accountability
As a part of instilling a new culture, discipline and accountability have been emphasized in the program. Wilson said when there’s a fumble, the offense does push-ups at the end of practice, for example.
“What we’re looking for in the end is a disciplined position group from each of our position coaches,” said assistant coach Ed Lamb. “They’re going to have to do that within their own personal style. It’s kind of like, from a program standpoint, all can be well right now and we can feel like our players are really improving their accountability but this game is about production.”
7. Who emerged in the spring?
Among those who stood out during the spring were, in no particular order: running backs Zach Katoa; quarterback Zach Wilson; offensive lineman Brady Christensen; wide receivers Micah Simon and Aleva Hifo; linebacker Christian Folau; defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi; and safety Austin Lee.
Even though he is a senior, Mangum deserves mention because he is much further along, and he participated more than anyone expected before spring drills began as he comes back from an Achilles injury. Linebacker Zayne Anderson and safety Dayan Ghanwoloku made strong transitions to new positions. And in the spring scrimmage, Critchlow shined at QB when it counted the most.
8. Offensive line swagger
Grimes, a longtime offensive line coach, is going to do everything he can to ensure the O-line is tough, aggressive and technically sound. It appears the Cougars have a group that is meeting that challenge.
The presumptive starters on the line at this point, based on the spring scrimmage, are Brady Christensen (left tackle), Thomas Shoaf (left guard), James Empey (center), Tristen Hoge (right guard) and Austin Hoyt (right tackle).
“They’re big and they’re strong. We’re really happy with what (offensive line coach Ryan) Pugh is doing as O-line coach,” Sitake said. “Thomas Shoaf gained 20 pounds, which is nice. He can play guard and tackle. Everyone played more than one position on the O-line. It gives a lot of flexibility.”
9. Defensive mindset
BYU is working to shore up its defense. Sitake made some offseason coaching changes on the defensive side, hiring Preston Hadley as safeties coach and switching Lamb to linebackers coach. The Cougars will have to fill a big void with the loss of star linebacker Fred Warner, who is expected to be taken in the upcoming NFL draft.
How does Hadley assess this defense?
“I like the personality of the defense. That’s the first thing that jumps out at me. They want to be a smash-mouth, competitive unit. There’s good leadership. You see it from guys like Butch (Pau’u), Sione (Takitaki), Tevita (Mo’unga), Austin Lee and Dayan (Ghanwoloku), those upperclassmen are big contributors to that,” Hadley said. “The younger guys are buying in and learning the culture of how we play defense here. I was fortunate to play on a really good defense here. There are some similarities as far as the personality of the defense. Whether we surpass it, I hope we do. Time will tell.”
10. Tight end depth
The latest in BYU's long line of play-making tight ends is Matt Bushman, who earned Freshman All-American honors last season.
The Cougars would like to use multiple tight ends this season and they have several at their disposal, including Joe Tukuafu, JJ Nwigwe, Moroni Laulu-Pututau (who missed last season due to injury and was limited during the spring) and Tanner Leishman.
More help is on the way — recent signees Dallin Holker and Hank Tuipolotu are both expected to enroll this fall before serving missions.