Kalani Sitake is banking that the youth movement will be an investment that will pay dividends down the stretch in 2018 and beyond.
It started out that way with playing freshmen on the offensive line. It gained momentum when he began inserting freshmen receivers and backs in starting roles as the six weeks ran on. And it culminated in a win over Hawaii when freshman quarterback Zach Wilson replaced veteran senior Tanner Mangum.
Progress is hard. And it isn’t always kind. You will not meet a finer person than Mangum, whose determined, almost heroic comeback from Achilles tendon surgery in the offseason was a triumph of major proportions.
But to take the next step, Sitake made the tough decision. He made it sometime during the night BYU lost to Utah State in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU’s investment in the future is full-on.
Over this weekend, the school's football sports information director Brett Pyne tweeted out that 25 freshmen have played this year for BYU and 10 have started. The breakdown of frosh starters is eight on offense and two on defense. Each position group on offense has started a freshman including three offensive linemen, a tight end, two receivers and with the change to Wilson, one QB.
On defense, one defensive lineman and one cornerback who are freshmen found themselves called up for duty.
I’d wager that is the most freshmen ever played in modern BYU football history Wilson is the youngest BYU quarterback ever to start. Ever.
I remember talking to former BYU athletic director Glen Tuckett at a practice this past August, and I asked him the age-old question of playing talent or experience. His reply was to play talent every time.
On Friday, I called former BYU and NFL quarterback John Beck and asked his opinion on playing freshmen and inexperience. He can relate to a time with Gary Crowton who came to him and told him he was going to play early. The reason wasn’t that he made all the right reads all the time but that his insertion gave the offense a better chance at succeeding, and it was for one reason.
“He told me because I could move around in the pocket, had some athleticism and could extend a play and maybe get a first down with my legs and keep some plays alive, I would make the offense more productive.”
In a nutshell, that’s what BYU’s coaches have decided to do with its youth movement.
But playing youth comes with some risk, and it is hard at times, especially early.
“I’d say this,” said Beck. “It’s hard to get youth and inexperience all lined up. So, you have all these young guys on the offensive line and all these young guys at receiver, and when you put a lot of inconsistency out there together, when are they going to be consistent?”
Beck had a digital game analogy to throw at it.
“It’s kind of like pulling the lever on a machine in a casino, right? You are hoping to get three sevens to line up on the same line at once but when exactly do you get three sevens in a row? You can get two sometimes, and that’s kind of like it is. You have talented guys who are capable of making plays, but when you run a play with 11 guys out there, you hope you have all of them doing their jobs, lining up and doing what they are supposed to do at the same time so you get your lucky sevens all across the board.
“Do you have one guy bust sometimes? Yes, but if you have two or three making mental mistakes or an error on a play, like making the wrong move, stepping with the wrong foot, not getting the proper depth on a route, it makes it hard to be efficient football and be consistent football.”
Beck said he can relate to what both Mangum and Wilson have gone and will go through.
“I’ve been in that position where my offensive linemen are young, my receivers are young and my backs are young. I might be hitting it but the back went the wrong way in protection, and it can all blow up.”47 comments on this story
A week ago, Mangum had his world shaken up. He’s handled it with dignity and humility, as one would expect. Mangum, his parents, and siblings are first-class people and loyal Cougars to the core. This change, this disappointment is but another chapter, not the epilogue.
But this was a matter of BYU looking in the toolbox and grabbing an implement, a utensil that added another dimension to the offense. The team needed it. Being a competitor, Mangum certainly would have liked to ride the changes and tweaks afforded the new guy.
But he understands.
That’s why he’s Tanner Mangum.
Viva the freshmen.