With Super Bowl Sunday fast approaching, Cougar Insiders Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney discuss why the New England Patriots' defensive scheme is so well-suited for Kyle Van Noy’s skillset. They also debate what it would take for BYU to pull a rabbit from its hat when the Cougars host No. 4-ranked Gonzaga Thursday night. Lastly, with National Letter of Intent Day nearing, they question why all the buzz over preferred walk-ons. That and more on this week’s Cougar Insiders podcast.
Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Dick Harmon: Welcome to BYU Cougar Insiders. In this edition, we're going to be talking BYU football recruiting. What's the need? What are they going to get? And where are they struggling? We'll also break down the BYU-Gonzaga game and talk a little bit about the Super Bowl and Kyle Van Noy. That and much more on this edition of Cougar Insiders podcast.
Hey, welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News, along with beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're coming to you from Thanksgiving Point, we're talking BYU sports. This podcast is brought to you by the Salt Lake Stallions. You can get ticket information at SaltLakeStallions.com or call 833-223-2019.
Jeff Call, big game coming up with Gonzaga. Does BYU have any chance in this game?
Jeff Call: They have a chance. BYU hasn't beat Gonzaga at home in four or five years and so it's been tough sledding at the Marriott Center. More success, obviously, up in Spokane than Provo. But I think what we saw last Thursday against St. Mary's gives a glimmer of hope that maybe, if they can play the kind of defense they played last Thursday, if they can protect the ball like they did, I mean only two turnovers against St. Mary's, and then if they can shoot better. That's a lot of things to ask to be able to pull off this upset, but you look at TJ Haws has played really well. Yoeli (Child)'s been consistent all year. You see the emergence of Gavin Baxter. You see some other role players like Zac Seljaas and McKay Cannon doing some things and contributing. That's what it's going to take. It's going to take a full team effort for this team for 40 minutes. Whether they can do that, I don't know. But I'm hoping for a competitive game.
DH: My view is it seems like Gonzaga is strong in the areas that BYU is weak. It comes from outside shooting, that's what Gonzaga does. They got the inside game, they got tall guys they can bring off the bench, they got four or five guys that are 7-footers that they can bring in and work. It's going to be very hard for BYU to get anything done in the paint. And Yoeli seems to be comfortable just slipping out of the fight sometimes and getting out on the perimeter and trying to shoot. And when you do that you take away your best rebounder and your most athletic player. And that's kind of frustrating to see sometimes. He's trying to avoid foul trouble because he knows that he can't get that third foul in the first half. And the fourth foul in the second half. And so it seems like he plays and backs down a little bit from the physical play at times, which is his strength.
JC: Yeah, you pointed out Gonzaga has so much depth. I mean, they have waves of guys they can bring off the bench. They're ranked fourth in the country for a reason. This team is one of the best that's ever played in the Marriott Center, just like some of the others we've seen. BYU's going to have to somehow compensate for all that, and again it's going to take almost a perfect performance to make everything align. They've got guys, Killian Tillie? I mean, remember how he killed BYU last year in the tournament. And Brandon Clarke and they've got Zach Norvell Jr. I mean they've got so many different weapons and it's gonna be tough.
DH: Brandon Gurney, it seems like to me from the games that I've seen that Dave Rose is getting his outside shooters open shots and they're just not making enough. Is that a good observation that that is true? That they are getting open shots on the outside and they're not making them?
Brandon Gurney: Yeah, pretty much. Which has kind of been a really frustrating thing with BYU basketball, because you think at the end of the day these guys can shoot no matter what. That's always kind of been a hallmark, but I'm encouraged about BYU basketball. I think they're coming off the best showing of the season against St. Mary's. I'm pretty confident saying that. I don't know if Jeff would agree with me or not, but have they looked better than they did against St. Mary's?
JC: The only other game I'd say would match that would be the Utah State game, where they just blew the Aggies out of the water. Which surprised, I think, everybody because they were coming off that loss to Weber State, but yeah.
BG: I think there's a lot of positives to take from that game. That's kind of been the frustrating thing with this team is you see them reach something and you think OK, they've taken care of that. They can take off now. And then they revert back to playing no defense. The defense was really good against St. Mary's, by and large. I'm sure St. Mary's wasn't on; they weren't making a lot of shots, but they held them to a low point total and if they can continue doing that — what I liked is the whole week, they were just regaling how great they did in practice. We've all heard that before, then game time comes like I guess those practices weren't so great. But no, they were validated with how they played. So hopefully they kind of reached a new point and they can just progress beyond that. But man, it's gonna be tough against Gonzaga, I mean, Gonzaga is always really good but this year?
DH: They're a top-5 team. Jeff Call, I've got a compliment you on a story you did about a Gonzaga transfer. He's in BYU's camp, he just happens to be maybe the best shooter on BYU's team. He won't be a part of that game but when he transferred from Gonzaga, it was Mark Few's only married player that he's ever coached. And now he's at BYU.
JC: Yeah, so he fits right in. One of the gang. Yeah, I was able to talk to Jesse Wade last week, sat down with him for a while. I'd never really talked to him before and just an engaging, nice kid. And coach has been talking, even some of the players have been talking since the start the season about how Jesse Wade is so impressive. And he's the guy that's imitating, obviously, the other team's stars in practice. He makes so many shots and Jesse told me that he's never played better in his life than he is right now, which is pretty encouraging for this team looking forward. And you know, who knows? Maybe Jesse Wade can give his teammates and the coaching staff a little insight into Gonzaga that may help them Thursday night. We'll see.
BG: Can I add something about Jesse Wade? You asked me about shooting. This kid can shoot. And my last memory of Jesse Wade was he almost single-handedly brought Davis High from behind to beat Lone Peak. Among these were the years where Lone Peak was absolutely stacked. It was in the state tournament. If I remember right, he had a shot to win it at the end. It was about a 30-foot 3-pointer and it just trimmed out. And it was really impressive. I think he had about 30 points that game, and after the game we learned he had a broken finger. He was playing with a broken finger and just knocking down shots. This kid can play ball, he can play some serious basketball. I think he's going to be a big boost to this BYU team.
JC: One of the elements of the story I didn't manage to get in, I'll get it in print some other time, but he talked about his relationship with TJ Haws. Because, like you said, Lone Peak and Davis had some battles. AAU battles as well over the years. And so Jesse and TJ have known each other really well. And then they end up going to the same mission. They weren't companions but they served in the same mission. Then they're back on separate teams, Gonzaga and BYU, and now they're together again for the first time and they're really enjoying that relationship. So it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.
DH: Great stuff, Jeff. Brandon Gurney, recruiting. Signing date, the second cycle, coming up next week. BYU in both of these cycles has tried to chase down running backs to bolster up what they have and it seems like it's been a real hard, tough journey for this coaching staff and they have left almost no stone unturned in their efforts. They've worked very hard at it but it's still out there. What's going to happen?
BG: It's amazing. I've never seen anything like this where you're just trying to find anybody. I mean, they really are scraping deep. I won't say bottom of the barrel but they're really looking and they're extending their view. From what I understand, a lot of these kids want to come but they just can't get in. Which seems to be more and more of a problem with each year. I don't think the admissions really does the football team any favors. I'm not saying they're opposed to them. But it's pretty apparent to me just through conversations and just seeing what happens that they are not willing to bend over backwards just to admit football players, which I do think is the case at a lot of other universities. So if that just continues to build and build, I mean, BYU is not going down academically. They're going up every year. It might be more and more of a problem moving forward.
DH: If that's the case, and we looking at a smoking gun at something that is really holding back BYU football and that's the admissions office? Or the philosophy behind it, or the question of setting the guidelines. Are we looking at a smoking gun of why this football team is struggling and why Bronco Mendenhall said this is not sustainable? If you can't get players in that can go right up the freeway and get in several schools and graduate, and go through school and get the grades, the books studied, the tests done and their papers in and all that. Are we looking at the smoking gun, really a barrier to BYU football?
BG: Wow, that's a loaded question, Dick. That sounds like a Dick Harmon column coming up. But every year I can think of, I can pinpoint examples of kids that wanted to go to BYU but just couldn't get in. There's a lot of examples out there and that number's not going down.
DH: Jeff, are we underselling Lopini Katoa in this search? He was injured a little bit but he had flashes of brilliance during his freshman year. Capable, fast, he's not extremely big. But they've got backs in their program. They lost Riley Burt, at least I think he's put his name in the portal. I don't know if he's actually left school or not. Going to UNLV? He did make a trip there. But are we selling Lopini Katoa and some of the other players on the roster short by saying they're scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get all these guys in? Are we underselling what they have?
JC: We might be. We've talked about this many times, but there's not a big sample size for Katoa because we saw him here and there and he was impressive and then that long stretch when we didn't see him. So I'd love to see what he could do when he's fully healthy. But I remember about a year ago during spring ball being really impressed with him. The way he could not only run, but catch the ball, he seems like he'd be a pretty complete back and I'm really eager to see. Again, if he can get healthy I think he can be a big element of the offense. But they need other pieces. They've proven over and over again they can't do it with one guy. I mean, unless you're Jamaal Williams or Luke Staley, you need multiple guys and you need that depth. And right now they're really lacking depth at that position.
DH: Especially with the schedule they have. So what are we looking at then, on signing day? The actual signing day that took place in December was kind of the big dump for BYU. That's where a lot of action took place, but there's been some pretty good commitments come up in the last week or so.
BG: Yeah the biggest one, the guy I'd like to pinpoint, is this Cade Albright kid from Southern California. When you look at the 14 guys signed, there's three guys that I think are just headliners. Guys that I really can't see them not having success and that would be Jacob Conover, Chase Roberts and Michael Daley, who I really liked from Lone Peak. I would put Cade Albright into that group. I think he's a high quality athlete, a guy that's probably going to play outside linebacker and kind of be that flash linebacker, that kind of Fred Warner type. I'm not saying he's as talented as Fred Warner, didn't have near the offers Fred Warner did but he had high quality offers. And in this day and age with BYU football, getting a kid with high quality offers and winning over schools doesn't really happen a lot anymore. But this kid is definitely one of the best guys in Southern California. They were able to beat out Utah.
DH: He had a trip scheduled for Utah and he canceled it after he committed.
BG: That's right. So yeah I think Cade Albright is definitely a headliner type recruit for this class.
DH: Coming up — the Super Bowl! We got the Super Bowl this Sunday. You got Kyle Van Noy playing for the New England Patriots. I had the opportunity to do a story on him that will appear later this week in the Deseret News and on our website. I talked to Kelly Poppinga, up who really reflected back on how BYU's system is so similar to the Patriots and what they run, and highlighting him and letting him be on the edge and putting him into pass coverage. So we've got Kelly talking about that. I've got some other interesting people talking about him. One person I wasn't able to get is Bronco Mendenhall. For some reason or another there's been kind of a disconnect there and Bronco kind of passed on an interview. He was out recruiting, and a chance to talk about Kyle. But Kyle has been a force for the Patriots and one could make the argument that he's maybe the best defender in this Super Bowl.
JC: Yeah, you could make that argument. It's interesting as I go back to, this is probably 2016 when we went to Michigan State to cover that game. The next day I went over to Detroit and watched Kyle Van Noy play with the Lions. And he started, he played quite a bit. But he just looked so out of place. It was like a fish out of water. He just didn't look like the same player that he was at BYU. He looked uncomfortable. Like he was out of position, and I think he was. I go back and I think about before the draft, before we came out you heard these rumblings that the Patriots really like Kyle Van Noy, I dont know if you remember that. And obviously the Lions took Kyle Van Noy.
But Bill Belichick obviously had Kyle in his mind and knew how to use him. And when they made that trade for him it completely changed everything. It changed Kyle Van Noy's future and it really helped the Patriots as well. So it's kind of cool to see him, where he is now, helping the Patriots and getting a chance to play in the Super Bowl again.
DH: He's calling the plays on defense. He's actually the leader of the defense. He makes the play calls, right? He calls out the changes at the line of scrimmage. He's really involved there. Well, rest of the story. Let's talk a little bit about what's on cyberspace. Little bit about the internet. What's the bark out there right now?
BG: It's really interesting. I mean, I've covered recruiting as long as anyone, right, and preferred walk-ons you usually don't even know about them. It's become a real thing now. And I think the reason for that is because most of the scholarship guys are already signed. So what do you have right now, you have preferred walk-ons and all that. And there has been so much hand-wringing on battles lost for preferred walk-ons. Which is just kind of a new thing for me. And the kid that's central in that is a kid named Braedon Wissler from Bingham, who just recently said I'm going to go to Utah as a preferred walk-on. That's the key. And I go to Cougarboard and man, oh, I can't believe we lost out on this kid. Really? With all due respect to Braedon Wissler. I really like him. He was a fantastic high school player. Really short. I mean like Britain Covey-type short, but he's stockier than Britain. He got hurt the first game of the season this past year, wasn't able to play, which kind of hampered his chances. Although most people that have offers are offered before that senior year. His best offer was SUU and you're really wringing your hands and really upset about this? I mean sure, I wouldn't be surprised if Braedon had a really good career at Utah. I think he's a really good football player and I think he's a guy that could absolutely max out his talent. But man, defining him as a loss and really being concerned about that? It's hard for me to get with that. But we're in a new day and age I guess.
DH: We are. And I think BYU's coaching staff, in talking to them, they are using the preferred walk-on program to develop talent and people that they really feel do deserve a scholarship, they just don't have one available for them. And they're usually people that are high achievers, they're guys that are going to make it academically and with the Honor Code, they're not going to be a big risk and you can invest in them without giving them a scholarship to see how they perform. If you go back in BYU's history they've had some outstanding walk-on talent. You go back to Dennis Pitta, walk-on receiver. You go back to Chad Lewis. He walked on this team after a career at Orem High School. You look at Bracken El-Bakri on the defensive line. He walked on this team and he's a starter.
They're putting a lot of eggs in the basket of these type of players that they believe can be high achievers, can be high contributors and playing at a Division I level because the risks have been taken out of it academically and with the Honor Code.
BG: A preferred walk-on that I really like that BYU recently was able to get was the kid from Lehi. Trey Andersen. He's the son of a former BYU offensive lineman and from what I've talked to he might be an offensive lineman by the time it's all said and done, he's got a really big frame and all that. But when I think of the preferred walk-ons that's a kid that really grabbed my attention as someone, yeah, you need to watch this guy.
DH: Jeff Call, women's basketball, and a lot of the other sports, I think there's six of them ranked in the top 25. Talking about volleyball, we're talking about the men's golf team, we're talking about the women's basketball team. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year and all the sudden they're kind of the cream of the crop in this conference.
JC: Yeah, Brandon is the expert on the women's basketball but I've watched a little bit of what they've been able to do and it's impressive. That win against Gonzaga at home was huge, against a top-15 team. And you're right. I think the expectations were pretty low for this team. And to see them overachieve like this. And it seems like it's a team that's kind of getting better and better and really looking forward to the West Coast conference tournament to see how they do.
DH: Gentlemen let's take a topic, let's talk BYU-Gonzaga. Your final thoughts, Brandon Gurney?
BG: Wow. BYU's been able to pull a rabbit out of its hat and it seems like they can play Gonzaga well. It's kind of been a weird thing with this BYU basketball team that when everything seems to be going against it, they can rise up against Gonzaga. And maybe they can do it this Thursday. Maybe they can make a game of it. I don't think it's a hopeless endeavor, taking on Gonzaga. I think this team, with what they showed against St. Mary's, I'm more optimistic going into this game than I have been. I just want to add, to the women's team, man are they fun to cover. Just really delightful girls. And what I really liked about that Gonzaga win was the Marriott Center was really loud and into the game and that's something you just don't get at women's basketball games. But they're starting to get some momentum and Jeff Judkins is always talking about it. He just wants people to fill up that place, get into the product. And I think that might be a thing going forward. I think I think they're making some waves and they're catching some notice, where people are going to start coming out to these games.1 comment on this story
JC: We've got Tom Holmoe doing his yearly Q&A this afternoon and we'll see what comes out of that. We get a chance to ask him whatever we want, and it's a rare opportunity. Because for those who don't know, we can't just call up Tom and interview him. It's usually in a setting like this where he invites local media and has kind of a roundtable discussion. So we'll see what goes on there. But yeah, I'm used to these 9 o'clock games by this point, getting home late and my nerves frayed. On deadline, trying to get these stories done. But like I said, I hope it's a competitive game. I think BYU does have a shot. I'm interested to see what kind of crowd shows up on Thursday night.
DH: Well, thanks for joining us on this episode of Cougar Insiders podcast. We'd like to hear from you through email at [email protected] We're working to