PROVO — It’s been a long offseason for the BYU football program.
Coming off its worst season in nearly 50 years, the Cougars are eager to open fall camp Thursday as they prepare in earnest for their season opener at Arizona Sept. 1.
“The season couldn’t come faster,” coach Kalani Sitake said at media day in June. “It was such a bad experience last year with the outcomes of the games. That’s not us. I would have felt differently if we would have played to our ability. I understand the injuries are a part of it. But I didn’t feel like it was matching what our identity is. I feel much better with it. How it will play out, I have my expectations but I’m really excited to get there to see how it works.”
While this is Sitake’s third season at the helm, BYU is looking for a fresh start of sorts.
After finishing near the bottom in the country in almost every offensive statistical category in 2017, Sitake shook up his staff on that side of the ball, which included the hiring of first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who has worked to change the offensive culture — including more discipline and accountability.
“I think we’ll have a unit that will battle in a way that will make the fans proud,” Grimes said. “No one can predict how many games we’ll win or how many points we’ll score. But we can demand that they’ll play with passion, energy and discipline. We’re going to do that.”
The Cougars posted a 4-9 record last season and they face another challenging schedule in 2018.
Following the opener at Arizona, BYU hosts California and then travels to Wisconsin. BYU also has road games at Washington, Boise State and Utah.
Here are five storylines to watch during the Cougars’ training camp:
1. The quarterback race
BYU coaches are looking to identify a starter at QB and they’re hoping someone emerges sooner than later in order to galvanize an offense that sputtered last season.
Among the candidates are senior Tanner Mangum, junior Beau Hoge, sophomore Joe Critchlow and true freshman Zach Wilson.
Grimes said he hopes to identify the starter within the first two weeks of camp. What is he looking for in a starter?
“Without question, he has to be confident and tough and has to have a competitive spirit about him,” Grimes said. “That’s a non-negotiable. He has to be able to run our offense flawlessly, break the huddle, call the play, shift, motion, check us into the right play. He’s got to be able to run the offense. Lastly, he needs to be accurate when he throws the football. Consistently accurate. A guy’s athleticism is something we like and certainly value but we can live with a little bit more or less of that either way. His job is to run the offense and distribute the football consistently.”
2. Other position battles
Quarterback isn’t the only position that will see intense battles during fall camp. BYU’s post-spring depth chart shows a number of jobs are up for grabs, including at wide receiver, running back, linebacker, safety and placekicker.
For example, the running backs are listed as Squally Canada or Zach Katoa or Riley Burt or Kavika Fonua. At left corner, the starter is listed as Troy Warner or Keenan Ellis or Trevion Greene.
Matt Hadley, a medical redshirt granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA, is listed as a possible starter at all three linebacker spots.
“In the first couple of weeks, we’d like to have a pretty good idea about who our first 11 will be,” Grimes said. “A lot of it will be mix-and-match with personnel groups. In a sense, we’ll have multiple starting groups. I want everyone to compete until someone’s clearly won the job.”
Several players have switched position since last season, including Sione Takitaki from defensive lineman to linebacker; Zayne Anderson from safety to linebacker; Dayan Ghanwoloku from cornerback to safety; and Troy Warner from cornerback to safety.
3. Integrating newcomers
A handful of newcomers could make a big impact this season, including freshman wide receiver Gunner Romney.
"He's a big, strong receiver who I think is not only a talented player, but the right kind of kid," Grimes said. "The guy is all business and is very serious about his training and has a plan to get here and compete right away."
Other newcomers to watch include quarterback Zach Wilson; graduate transfer wide receiver Dylan Collie; and freshman placekicker Skyler Southam.
Wilson participated in spring practices and acquitted himself well. Collie, the younger brother of former Cougar star Austin Collie, brings a wealth of experience after playing for three seasons at Hawaii. Southam, a Wasatch High product, was a 2015 Army All-American selection.
Each of those players will be vying for starting jobs or looking to make contributions this season.
On the offensive line, the Cougars are looking forward to the debuts of right guard Tristen Hoge, a Notre Dame transfer and redshirt freshman James Empey, a center. Other newcomers include freshman defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi, freshman offensive tackle Harris LaChance and freshman tight end Dallin Holker.
4. More live scrimmages?
In order to determine the starters, the coaching staff could stage more live scrimmages, like they did during the spring.
“By calling live scrimmages and seeing how (the players) performed and even that, which is much less than a game day environment, affected some guys this spring. It gave us a picture of that with certain guys that told us something about them. It also gave us an opportunity for growth,” Grimes said. “Particularly with young guys who haven’t been in that environment, we’ll do the same thing in fall camp. But there still will be a learning curve when we actually hit the field in September. But because they will have paid the price and worked extremely hard at it, they’ll go into that first game feeling like they’ve earned the right to play well.”
5. Who is — and is not — on the roster?
When BYU hosted Media Day in June, a couple of players were conspicuously absent — sophomore running back Ula Tolutau and freshman tight Joe Tukuafu.72 comments on this story
If they are not able to play this season for the Cougars, that would definitely hurt the Cougars’ depth at those positions.
Tolutau, who rushed 72 times for 303 yards and two touchdowns last season, was suspended after a charge of marijuana possession. Tukuafu sat out a year ago after transferring from Utah State.
"They're not with us right now,” Grimes said in June. “Hopeful they'll be back in the fall."
If Tolutau and Tukuafu aren’t around this season, BYU will hope that other players emerge or step up in their absence.