Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake and the BYU sideline celebrate as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

Still hurting from watching a third-quarter 20-point lead against Utah evaporate, BYU fans are left wondering what the future holds. Insiders Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney debate the question. Did BYU, winner of two more games in 2018 than 2017, take a meaningful step in the right direction? The trio also examines the critical December recruiting period, and explains why giving up on Kalani Sitake would be a big mistake.

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Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Dick Harmon: OK, on this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast, we're going to break down a little bit about the future of BYU football. We're going to talk about some of the things that this team can get from coming out of this season. The experience they had at the University of Utah, a heartbreaking the loss there, but there were some positive things that happened. We'll talk about the continuity of BYU's football program under coach Kalani Sitake — is he on the hot seat? Should he be on the hot seat? And if he is, what impact could that have if they ended up letting him go. We'll talk about that and a lot of other topics here on the Cougar Insiders podcast.

Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News, along with the beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're coming to you from Thanksgiving Point where we're talking BYU sports. This podcast is brought to you by the Salt Lake Stallions. You can get ticket information at SaltLakestallions.com.

And guys, we witnessed one of the more interesting games in the rivalry. Something that I don't think that I expected. A lot of people did not expect, and the way it ended, of course, it kind of ripped the hearts out a lot of BYU fans. It had to really hurt this team. The coaching staff, very disappointing, but credit to the Utes. They came back, they came screaming back, they came back very hard. But there are some things that you saw in that game that are probably pretty positive for BYU. I guess I would ask the question, if you were to buy stock in BYU's football program, would it be something you would buy or something you'd turn down? Is it going up? Or is it going down? What is the stock of BYU football right now, Jeff Call?

Jeff Call: You've got to buy. And one of the reasons why I say that is because of your quarterback. I mean, Zack Wilson, take away the fact that he's a true freshman. He's 19 years old. I mean, here's a kid — I haven't seen a BYU quarterback play with that much confidence and make that many plays in a long time. And again, keeping it in perspective how young he is, his first chance to play in this rivalry game, and the way he was able to make plays with his feet, extend plays and the way he was throwing the ball with confidence. I think that bodes well for BYU's future. I mean, he is the future of BYU football right there.

DH: Jeff, you've heard me say this many, many times, the thing that makes BYU good, the things that make them tick, the things that get them to defeat the University of Utah is to have a quarterback that makes plays, that is a finesse playmaker, that throws the ball, doesn't do it with his legs necessarily all the time like we've seen some guys like Riley Nelson and Taysom Hill do, and not win. You've got to be able to throw the ball. He threw two touchdown passes that were pretty remarkable. He had other passes that were pretty good. I mean BYU's got a good future with Zach Wilson. It really does.

JC: Yeah. And you know, I talked to Zach the Monday before the game and he was very confident. In my mind, I'm thinking, does he really know what he's in for? I know he's spent his life going to those games. But being on the other side of it, being on the field in that rivalry, that big stage, is he really ready for that experience? And I gotta tell you, I mean, especially that first half, he looked like he belonged there. He looked like he knew exactly what he was doing. There was no fear, and just totally impressive. And one other thing I will mention, too, and you're looking ahead to the future, but I think the performance by Corbin Kaufusi, a guy that we all thought was done because we were told he was done, for him to throw it all on the line. And to give it his all — I mean, literally, he's got body parts hanging there, you know. He's out there just to play in this BYU-Utah game. What I think could happen, one of the benefits that could happen from this, is I think those younger players look at that and say, This is what is required to be a winning football team. This is what's required to beat Utah. You got to put it all out there. And you wonder if maybe that example that Corbin set for those guys will linger in their minds throughout the offseason and they will remember what he gave to this program, and these guys will think that's what we need to do.

DH: Brandon Gurney, the collapse will be remembered. It's very painful for BYU fans. A lot of second-guessing of what happened with play-calling and you know there were some real key injuries and the second half — Matt Hadley was having a great game, Isaiah Kaufusi had a tremendous impact on that game, he was not there toward the end. But buy stock in BYU football or sell stock in BYU football?

Brandon Gurney: For the reasons Jeff stated, which is the biggest reason, the quarterback, but I'd also add just the other position groups. You're looking at an offensive line that returns everyone, full of sophomores and freshmen. Absolutely going to get better. On the skill positions I still think they need more bodies on the outside — tight end, all back, running backs, pretty much Squally Canada who you weren't with for most of the year anyway. And you throw that at an offensive staff. I don't care who you are that first year as an offensive staff you're going to have growing pains, you're going to have moments where you're not doing the right thing. I strongly believe that (Jeff) Grimes is the guy. I think he has a very good head on his shoulders. A very good vision of what this offense needs to be. And I think he's going to prove to be a very good offensive coordinator in time. I just like his demeanor. I like his composure. I like what I hear about how he treats players, how he implements a system. It's all going to get better. And when you look at what he had to work with this year, it's kind of phenomenal that he was able to produce the results he did. Not phenomenal results by any means. But good results, by and large.

DH: You take the two-deep that came out of fall camp and you look at that and there were 11 players that were injured and either started or couldn't finish that game. As you compared in September with the starting lineup, there's 11 — that's half the team is not out there playing at the end of that game. We lost some early, lost some in the middle, lost some late. A guy like Corbin has been playing injured since Utah State.

What does it do now — they go to a bowl game, they get those extra 14, 15 practices in, which is the equivalent of a spring practice. You have young players — they played a lot of freshmen. You've got some other players that they could insert in and get them some playing time, Jeff Call. What does it mean for the future of the program to go to a bowl game and to have that experience in a few weeks?

JC: Yeah, it's huge and you can't underestimate it because — especially when your position — we have so many young guys, like Brandon mentioned, that need the extra practice, that need the extra reps, and to have one more game, to have that time to prepare. I think it would really benefit BYU if they had a bowl game that was a little bit later on the calendar so that they can get all those bowl practices in and take advantage of those because we've seen in the past, all those years that Bronco Mendenhall's teams, for example, went to bowl games. I mean, they benefited from those practices and having those extra reps and you got to have those, especially in BYU's situation.

DH: Just a brief statement from each of you. 6-6 with wins over Wisconsin, at the goal line against Boise State, in a field goal position if they hadn't thrown the pick-six against Northern Illinois, had Utah on the ropes 27 - 7 late in the third quarter. Has this team made progress over last year? Just a brief statement from each of you, Jeff first and then Brandon.

JC: Oh, absolutely. I mean, not only the two more wins than last year. But the way they play, the way they battle? I mean, there was times last year when you'd wonder if this team was ever going to get it together. They looked lost, they looked like there was no identity, focus. But you have that this year. You see a direction, like Brandon mentioned with Jeff Grimes, he has a vision of where he wants this team to go. And so yeah, definitely a huge step forward for this program.

BG: Yeah, how about all the games we kind of predicted a lot of them wrong. But at the end of the day, we're right back to where most of us thought this team would be which is 6-6. But I think it's probably even more positive than the 6-6 we were envisioning prior to the season, just because they proved to be competitive in games we didn't think they could be competitive in. And win games we didn't think they had any chance to win. So absolutely positive.

DH: I think you look at the defense — last year, the defense, like the offense, struggled mightily. Going into the Utah game they were ranked 23rd in the nation in total defense, they ended up 18th in the nation in total defense. Progress was made. I think they probably increased statistically in about everything that they had with a much more difficult schedule, and so if you look at the numbers this was an improved team and its trajectory is really in a good direction right now.

There are a lot of people on the internet, a lot of people on message boards that really are down on Kalani Sitake, but I would submit to you, with all of his flaws he's growing as a coach. He's growing and he's learning lessons, he's made changes, he continues to grow. I think that if you made a change — his contract's up in a year. But if you made a change at this point, you get a shot maybe in recruiting. You take a shot in the political connections that he's trying to build with the administration, with the Honor Code office, with admissions, you have to have somebody start all over with those things. You bring in another coach that hasn't had the mistakes and the ups and downs and learning lessons that he's had, that he now has to learn those things. I don't know at this time, Jeff Call, if it's really a legitimate thing to expect that BYU's going to turn away from Kalani Sitake, either right now or at the end of next season. I just don't know if the time is right for that to happen. I think you'd be set back a little bit in what you're trying to do with BYU football.

JC: Yeah, I agree. Kalani has had some growing pains and he's struggled in some areas. I mean, we saw that with Bronco too when he took over. I mean, there there's a lot of things about this program that are unique. Things you have to learn, things you have to adapt to, that you don't find in other coaching positions around the country. And so you know, you make the good point. I think you've got to be all in on Kalani. You've made an investment, you went out during the offseason and brought in Jeff Grimes. And paying the staff — you know Tom Holmoe told us this is the most BYU's ever paid for coaches. And so you've got to give it time to let it kind of blossom and grow from here, and there's good signs, like we said, and so you gotta believe that it's only going to get better from here.

DH: Brandon Gurney, you've seen him firsthand around recruits. His approach, the way that he handles recruits, you've seen at the Poly camp the connections that he has, you see that he interacts with a lot of Polynesian athletes in a certain way that's very valuable. That would be very valuable for University of Utah to have him, be very valuable for Utah State to have him. But BYU's got him as a head coach. He's had his ups and downs, but you take that away and I think you take a huge hit in the Polynesian community across this country.

BG: Oh, no question. Yeah, it could be immense, you could see just a tidal wave of transfers. Yeah, I haven't even thought about that. But yeah, the attrition would just be unbelievable. But the thing is, they've got to beat Utah just one year, I'm telling you, if they could just beat Utah and go in there. We now beat Utah, it would be enormous and it was so close, has been so close the last three years.

JC: Well you think of how the perception this season would have changed had they finished it and won that game. They're 7-5.

BG: Especially the way that they did it, they couldn't continue that. We didn't just beat Utah, there was nothing fluky about this. We beat those guys. The guys that are going to the Pac-12 championship. But no, of course, as with all rivalry games in recent history, what can go wrong does go wrong for BYU.

DH: Where does BYU stand right now? What can we look at right now as far as recruiting goes? What kind of class are they having, what kind of people have committed, who do we expect to sign in December, will there be an injection of maybe a JC running back or somebody in the coming weeks? You got a handle on this Brandon, speak.

BG: They have some junior college guys they're looking at, but no one that I think, yeah, they're going to get this guy. It's kind of down to okay they offer this guy so hopefully no one else offers him and we can get this kid in. I think December, early December of signing period, really helps with that for BYU because I think they've been really proactive with the junior college guys, where maybe other programs are not. We'll see, there's a kid named Brandon Pierce who's kind of the new receiver. He's from College of the Canyons. At running back, there's no name that's even there that they're honed in on this guy.

DH: With the new NCAA rules of seniors saying that they are, you know, are transferring and they can put themselves in that NCAA database and that. Are there any transfers that are leaving some programs that aren't criminals, that other people pick up it seems to be, or is there anybody that is a senior that's graduating that could say you know I want to go to BYU. Is there anybody like that on the horizon?

BG: No one I've heard of. They could really use a Jordan Leslie, holy cow. They could use a guy like that. The frustrating thing, and it has been frustrating for as many years as I've covered BYU recruiting is their best recruits are guys you are not going to see for three or four years because of missions. I mean Trace Roberts is as good as any receiver I've seen in the state, not named Puca Nacua who ironically played the same year, but this kid is amazing. If you watched the 5A championship, he had 15 catches for 250 yards. Just an amazing talent, but he's going on a mission, have to wait. Jacob Conover, have to wait. So it's kind of tough just pinpointing an immediate impact guy, maybe he won't go, I think he will. But if I'm BYU coaches maybe you tell a kid we really need an impact on the outside immediately, because they do. There's not a lot of talent there. Gunner Romney did not progress like we thought he would. Of course he had tons of injury issues. That was the big issue with him. But really who do you pin the outside position on going into next year? You need help in that position. That's pretty much the only offensive position. Running back I think is gonna be fine with Lopini Katoa. And also, I kind of wanted to mention this in the last segment, if I was going to ask you guys what's going to be the strength of the BYU defense coming back next year, you might say defensive back?

DH: Yeah those young corners played Utah's receivers as well as I've seen them do in the last 10 years.

BG: They've been good all year and all those guys are returning. And that's the same thing every year, just keep these guys in the program, which isn't an easy thing when you're talking about the BYU cornerbacks, but there's some really good things developing in that secondary which is going to help the front seven play more loose than most BYU front sevens.

DH: There there could be surprises too. You have Jeff Grimes who is a native of the Dallas, Texas, you have A.J. Seaward who is from Texas, he grew up in Dallas. These guys might be able to reach down and bring somebody through at the last minute that might be a surprise or kind of a sleeper. Jeff Call, these recruits could tune in now I think, it's not guaranteed, not 100 percent, but we're expecting that BYU will be invited to a bowl game in the next few days, if not over the weekend. What does it look like for those bowl projections?

JC: Well, if you look at the national prognosticators who study all this stuff all year, if you were to boil it down to one common place where they think BYU's gonna go it would be the First Responder Bowl in Dallas, day after Christmas. It's the same bowl that Utah played in last year.

BG: I can tell Jeff wants them to go to that bowl.

JC: There were some projections that had BYU going to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, playing a Power Five team. The Cheese It bowl down in Phoenix. So there are some other options but it's gonna be really interesting because obviously BYU, with its tie to ESPN. ESPN owns 13 ball games. I think 35 of the 40 bowl games that are televised on ESPN, so it makes sense that ESPN will do everything it can to get BYU slotted, and slotted in a good position.

DH: I might mention that Ben Criddle, on his radio show, had an ESPN person on there. And he said that ESPN owes them a game, that they're going to get them a game, and they're part of that family.

JC: It makes sense. There are, I think, four teams that are bowl eligible that are gonna get squeezed out. I don't see one of those teams being BYU. I think they will do everything they can to get them into a bowl game.

DH: You know, we have a great opportunity right now to talk to one of our sponsors. We have the president of the Salt Lake Stallions, Tyler Howell, here in our studios at Thanksgiving Point. And Tyler, welcome to our podcast. We appreciate you being here.

Tyler Howell: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to be on with you guys.

DH: You know, you got a lot of things on your agenda, even tonight, right?

TH: Yeah, we were moving. We've got 74 days before our opening game. We play the first week after the Super Bowl. So that's the beauty of it is that football is going to keep going this year.

DH: How has it been received here in Salt Lake City?

TH: It's been good. We've had to get the attention out and once people learn who we are and they realize that it's 11 on 11, we're not arena, it's real football played the way it's supposed to be played. We'll be up at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a place you guys know a little bit. And we'll be there starting the week after the Super Bowl. Our first home game is Feb. 23. And then tonight we're doing our quarterback draft. And so it's a little bit unique that as we're starting our league we have a chance to draft a quarterback, see who's going to be leading our team for the next season.

DH: So how does your draft work? How do you get players? How do you collect the roster? How do you put it together? Is there a draft? Is there free agents, so they just going out to see who can sign? Is there a priority to the league and what they want to have you do as far as gathering the team?

TH: Yeah, a few months ago they held several tryouts and were able to sign or had over a thousand people come in. We've signed over 600 players as a league. And the cool thing, the way they've got it set up, is that you've got geographic alignment. And so if it's a local player then we get the first rights to them. The only exception to that is the quarterback because that's such an important position. We want to make sure that that's truly balanced throughout the league And so that's the purpose of tonight is that there were about 50 quarterbacks signed and we'll go through and draft them in tonight's program.

JC: I know our listeners would love to know what guys with BYU ties will be playing for the Stallions this year. Can you give us a rundown on who they are and who we can expect to see?

TH: The two main guys we've got here are Tuni Kanuch, I hope I'm saying that right. And then the other one is Handsome Tanielu, and I'm not even gonna try to say his last name because with a name like Handsome you don't need a last name.

JC: Two big tackles for BYU

TH: Yeah, couple of big linemen. And that's hopefully anchoring our team for our offense.

DH: Tell us a little bit about your schedule and kind of what fans would have to look forward to as far as home games, and maybe even traveling away. How far away would they need to go for a couple of these games?

TH: Yeah, there's eight teams in the league. Our season opens on Feb. 10. We'll be traveling down to Arizona to play the Hot Shots and then the 23rd we open against the Hot Shots as well. We've got a game in between where we're in Birmingham, Alabama, we have five total home games and they're all on Saturday nights, with the exception of our last game, that'll be a Friday night battle on April 12.

DH: Now, I first met your head coach Dennis Erickson when he was the coach at the University of Wyoming, and he's been all over this country from the West Coast to down in Miami and all over it. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got him to agree to coach this and take this opportunity, and then other members of the staff.

TH: Yeah, we were really lucky to get Dennis and that really comes down to our GM Randy Mueller, who has been in the NFL for several years. He was with the Saints and then with the Seahawks. And Dennis actually was the coach for Randy when he was up with the Seahawks. So Randy is excited to be part of this league and had a conversation with Dennis, from what I understand it didn't take long and Dennis is anxious to go and excited to really be in year 1 of this and to build the thing from the ground up.

DH: There you have it. Tyler Howell, president of the Salt Lake Stallions. We invite you to buy ticket, to inspect this opportunity to see football in February. Where can you get tickets, were can they call?

TH: Go to SaltLakeStallions.com. Go online, it's the best place to do it. We've got season tickets on sale now.

DH: Tyler Howell, thanks for being with us on this part of our podcast today. Appreciate it.

Our final word. Gentlemen, let's go around the horn here and talk a little bit — we ought to maybe bring up basketball, both of you have seen this team play. Volleyball? We could talk about that too. Why don't you start off with volleyball. It comes up this Friday with BYU in the Final Four.

BG: Sorry to interrupt, but I'm excited to cover this. This volleyball team has been phenomenal all year. There's some adversity going into the tournament, they lost their last match of the year, McKenna Miller, who is their second best outside hitter, torn ACL and all that. So it's gonna be interesting to see how this team rebounds. But they basically get to play home matches so long as they keep winning up until the Final Four, which is a big thing. Because you talk about the altitude, the atmosphere at the Smith Fieldhouse, it's going to be a big thing for these girls. So it starts Friday and man if you want to cover a BYU team that absolutely has a legitimate shot at a national championship, this is your team.

DH: Exciting times for those guys. I know they've worked hard and they're very deep. Jeff Call, basketball. Are they going to be able to hit 3-pointers by the time the conference play starts?

JC: That's the $50,000 question. It's the question we've been asking for quite a while. And as it stands right now, BYU is I think No. 309 nationally in 3-point shooting. I went to my son's Junior jazz game and I saw kids hitting 3s and I'm going, why don't we see this with BYU? But yeah, that's obviously got to turn around. But this is a really critical stretch for BYU right now, because they've got Illinois State this week, they play out Weber, they start off a stretch of three straight in state games. Weber State, Utah State and Utah coming up. And lo and behold, next week, Nick Emery is eligible to begin playing. So he will add an element and, you know, talk about 3-point shooting. That's what he does. And we'll see if he can do something to help that. I mean, I'm really curious to see how Dave Rose uses him, you know, into the rotation, how much he plays, all that stuff. I mean, he hasn't played in a long time, at least in a competitive game like this. So it's gonna be interesting to see how quickly he can make an impact.

59 comments on this story

DH: My rule would be if he hits four 3-pointers in his first game, then he's starting.

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