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Ravell Call, Deseret News
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson is brought down by Boise State Broncos linebacker Desmond Williams during game in Boise on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Wilson was one of 28 freshman who saw the field last season.

PROVO — Quarterback Zach Wilson highlighted a BYU freshman class that made a major impact on the program in 2018.

Last summer, the NCAA announced a major rule change regarding redshirts — players can participate in up to four games in a season without burning a redshirt year. This past season, the Cougars played 28 freshmen, including 18 true freshmen, while 14 different freshmen started at least one game. The freshman class recorded a total of 75 starts.

Coach Kalani Sitake is seeing the rewards of having given a lot of young players game experience.

“This year, we played so many freshmen and with the redshirt freshmen we played a lot more than normal because of that new rule, which allowed us to get that taste of being on the field, and it’s going to catapult them into 2019,” he said. “We’re already seeing the difference in the way they take their offseason workouts and their conditioning. It’s going to be really good for us.”

BYU opens spring practices March 4.

" We chose talent over experience. I think that did well for us as a program. We’ll continue to do that. Everybody’s got to be on their toes and they’ve got to be ready to compete. We will play the best. "
BYU coach Kalani Sitake

“I’m really looking forward to getting to spring ball," Sitake said. "You only hope the experience by the freshmen helps us. I don’t think it can hurt us. As coaches, we can’t just rest on the fact that they got experience and that’s good enough. The best part that happened this year was competition at each position and playing the best guy, regardless of age and experience.

"We chose talent over experience. I think that did well for us as a program. We’ll continue to do that," he continued. "Everybody’s got to be on their toes and they’ve got to be ready to compete. We will play the best.”

Sitake points to sophomore linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi as an example of a player who made big strides thanks to significant playing time.

“I look at it this way — I remember Isaiah playing as a freshman (in 2017) and having it so brand-new to him. We had to take our lumps with him a little bit,” he said. “We definitely did that with a lot of freshmen that we played. It’s not like they’re all perfect as freshmen. Even the quarterback at Clemson, a true freshman, made some mistakes.

"They’re bound to make some mistakes," Sitake continued. "But they weren’t mistakes you can’t overcome and they got some needed experience. I look at Isaiah Kaufusi that went from his freshman year to his sophomore year and what a huge jump he made, even getting a little experience as a freshman.”

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
BYU linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi brings down Utes wide receiver Jaylen Dixon as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. Kaufusi, a sophomore on last year's team, got playing time during his 2017 freshman season, which better prepared him for his sophomore campaign.

Speaking of defense, Sitake said his staff, including defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki and linebackers coach Ed Lamb, did a good job dealing with multiple injuries during the season, and using the depth they had at their disposal.

“Going into the season, we thought we had an experienced linebacking crew but we had some injuries. We lost (linebacker) Zayne Anderson, but the good thing is we get him back,” Sitake said. “We had to deal with a lot of injuries this year.

"You could tell there was a better feel when guys were hurt and we had to dip into our depth a little bit, specifically on defense. We had an opportunity to utilize our DBs at different positions — Dayan Ghanwoloku, Mike Shelton, Austin Lee, Troy Warner, Tanner Jacobson.

"All those guys were able to move and play different positions. Their versatility allowed us to do some things defensively and devise a scheme where we could have the best 11 players on the field, depending on who we were playing against," Sitake continued. "I give a lot of credit to our coaches and what they were able to do in getting our defense ready. I think depth-wise, we improved a lot more.

"We return a bunch of guys still. We lose Sione (Takitaki), but moving him to middle linebacker was probably one of the best moves we made as a defense. We moved him from defensive end to linebacker in 2018, then in the middle of the season, when we had some injuries, we put him at middle linebacker.”

On offense, Wilson’s perfect performance (18 of 18 completions for 317 yards and four touchdowns) in the 49-18 trouncing of Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl feeds Sitake’s optimism. And he likes the overall depth at the quarterback position.

“We have a lot to build on. We have a lot of quarterbacks that fit in the system we have in place right now in Zach Wilson, Jaren Hall, Joe Critchlow, Baylor Romney,” Sitake said. “And we have a solid offensive line that we can build on and a lot of returning guys at receiver that can really help us out. They’re still transitioning and progressing. I’m really excited about seeing where they get to in 2019.”

On special teams, some experienced players return while there are some voids to fill. Placekicker Skyler Southam, who was a freshman last season, booted a 47-yard field goal and also connected on a game-winning 45-yard field goal at Wisconsin.

“I was really pleased with the things that he did,” Sitake said of Southam.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU freshman kicker Skyler Southam lines up a field goal in Seattle on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018.

Also returning is placekicker Jake Oldroyd, who kicked the game-winning field goal in Sitake’s first game as BYU’s head coach against Arizona in 2016. Oldroyd recently returned home from a mission to Chile.

“We also have Jake ‘The Make’ Oldroyd coming back,” Sitake said. “He’s working with us and competition will be good for us.”

At punter, Rhett Almond has graduated but Australian native Danny Jones, who got some playing last year, is rapidly improving.

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“We feel like Danny’s really close to being an every-fourth-down punter for us with his style of kicks. He’s able to kick with both legs and he’s an Aussie-style kicker,” Sitake said. “This was his first year of football, so he’s still learning the game, but I’ve seen a lot of growth from him, even from the beginning of the year through bowl prep.”

Long snapper Mitch Harris returns as well, though the Cougars will be looking for a replacement for holder Gavin Fowler, who graduated.