Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU coach Kalani Sitake talks to the team following the Cougars' practice in on Thursday, March 15, 2018 in Provo.

With prior recruits returning from church missions and recent commits preparing to embark on them, sizing up BYU’s signing classes can be a challenge. Cougar Insiders Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney take a look at the issue and weigh in on the latest batch of BYU commits. They also examine why so many of the state’s top high school players opt to play out of state. Finally, they look ahead to BYU men’s basketball games this week at San Diego (Thursday) and Loyola Marymount (Saturday). Can the Cougars, winners of seven of their last nine games, maintain their momentum? That and more on this week’s episode.

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Dick Harmon: In this edition of Cougar Insiders podcast we'll be talking recruiting. We're going to be talking a lot of recruiting. We're going to mention names, we're going to talk about what these rankings actually mean or do not mean. We'll also give you an insight into this crucial week of BYU basketball. And we'll break down some other things. That and much more in this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast.

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 and we're talking BYU sports. Before we get started here we want to have a moment of silence, maybe two moments of silence for Brandon Gurney's beard which is dead, it's gone. It's been scraped off. Ready, let's give him a moment of silence. What happened, Brandon?

Brandon Gurney: Note to self: Never shave your beard off during winter. I had no idea how warm that keeps your face. But like most things in my life, it wasn't planned and it was completed by accident. But yeah, I'm beardless.

DH: I just complimented you last week, I thought it was a fantastic, Moses-like, maybe a little bit Middle-Eastern prophet type beard.

BG: I'm lazy enough that I'll grow it back. I'll forget to shave for like four days, eh I'll grow another one.

DH: Let's talk recruiting little bit. It's that time of the year, BYU just finished signing four people added to a December class of 14. Jeff Call ranked, some of the ranking services say they're ranked 70 something, 75th or whatever. But I would maintain, and it's not making any kind of excuse I don't think, but you can't apply a formula of star ranking and points and rankings to what BYU comes out with every year. To me, it doesn't apply.

Jeff Call: I agree. Because BYU is in that unique situation where they have so many guys come back from church missions that aren't accounted for, and on the other hand they've got guys that are accounted for that aren't going to be in the program for a couple years because they're going on missions. So I've never really put a lot of stock in the rankings as pertaining to BYU, and maybe even in general, because no one ever really knows. You've got to look at it three, four, five years. In BYU's case, sometimes six years, seven years down the road. So, you know, it's interesting. It makes for interesting fodder to talk about. But yeah, I don't think it applies to BYU.

DH: Brandon, is this is this class rankable? I mean, is it legitimately 75 plus, 80th in the country? Or could it be somewhere between 35 and 50th? How do we know?

BG: It's kind of a pointless conversation, as Jeff brought up. Having worked for scout.com for a number of years I kind of have an inside knowledge about how these star rankings are allocated, and although it's a lot better, and it is the best tool of evaluation there is out there, it's still not very good. There's a lot of flaws in it. Fans love it because fans love the fantasy. They love the rankings and all that, and pinpointing these guys and thinking about what they're going to be. And I totally get that. It's fun stuff, it's fun to see a ranking in the offseason and all that. But time has borne out it's not very applicable to what generally pans out at BYU. I mean, how many four-and five-star prospects have we seen that just don't do anything? I mean you have your Jason Munns, your Ross Apo, I mean the poster boy for it is Jake Heaps. So I think fans are kind of jaded with the rankings. And they probably should be. It's telling to some degree, but there's so much to play out. You don't want to hang your hat on a recruiting ranking.

DH: In addition to the December signees, which included a four-star quarterback, if we're going to use star ratings, in Conover, probably the most successful high school quarterback in the history of Arizona football and there's been some very good ones. Of course he's going on a mission, he won't be back, but that's 14 people signed then. But Jeff Call, in this February class just signed, Dimitri Gallow, a defensive back from Moreno Valley, California. We heard Ed Lamb say something to the effect that he's maybe one of the best bump-and-run cover corners that he's seen. And then this Luc Andrada, a legitimate 10.6 sprinter from Colorado who has run 10.6 at least seven times. A lot of sprinters will run 11 flat, or a 10.8 or 11.2 and then they average and it ends up being 10.7 or whatever, but he's run it seven times in the state of Colorado as a junior, and they believe that he can run even better now as a senior. And then you have this Javelle Brown, kind of a surprise athlete from San Diego. He can play running back, receiver. And then Cade Albright, who is probably the best player in this class because he was very close to taking a trip to Utah, recruited hard by him and other schools. But Jeff, let's get your comment on those four and then you, Brandon.

JC: The guy that stands out, like you said, is Cade Albright. I think he kind of fits into what Kalani Sitake and Ilaisa Tuiaki want to do on that D-line. Get a guy that's physical and athletic, get pressure on the quarterback. These other three guys, I mean you look at them and say maybe these are diamonds in the rough, guys that they scoured. We've talked about before, about how many running backs BYU has offered during this recruiting cycle and without much success at all. And these guys are athletes, like you said, they're speedy, we'll see if they pan out, see if they can be contributors down the road. What do you think, Brandon?

BG: I'll tell you, Javelle Brown has a real opportunity to play running back. I mean, they say he's an athlete. I'm not buying that for a second, I think he's playing running back for sure. And if I'm him, that's why I'm coming to BYU, because there's a real opening there for immediate playing time. And I think it's really interesting that they're continuing to recruit defensive backs. I've covered this program for a long time, not nearly as long as you, Dick, but I've never seen the depth as good as it is right now at corner back. Two or three deep and they're still bringing in guys. Dimitri Gallow, Eric Ellison, junior college guys that you bring in to contribute immediately. I like that they're not resting on their laurels. And they're still trying to upgrade that position.

DH: And another thing we need to talk about is this preferred walk-on program. They're bringing in in greater numbers than I can remember for a long, long time and it's part of a strategy. They feel like they can bring these guys in, they can challenge for positions, and then they can recruit out of that pool and give scholarships to those guys if they earn it. A prime example is Dax Milne last year, a receiver from Bingham High School who came in and contributed, but he was not on scholarship. And then Bracken El-Bakri on the defensive line, he ended up being a starter right off the bat and had a pretty decent year. Have you seen this as a difference and a shift in what their philosophy is, Jeff?

JC: Yeah I have. I also think BYU has established a reputation. I mean, going back to even like the Bronco Mendenhall years you see walk-ons, no one's heard of them, and they kind of get their chance and they pay their dues, and over time they get an opportunity, and then they become starters. I think BYU kind of lends itself to opportunities like that quite naturally. And this year some of the guys that I'm looking forward to, one is Cade Hoke, the son of Chris Hoke, he's a kid from Pennsylvania who maybe flew under the radar, had an injury issue, and he's to come to BYU. Nathan Upham, there's a lot of guys, Fisher Jackson, there's all these guys that obviously didn't get the scholarship offer but that doesn't mean to say they can't be very successful. The guy that I always keep thinking about was Dennis Pitta. I remember talking to Dennis when he was a walk-on freshman and I literally, I'd never heard of him, I mean I'd seen his name on the roster. I couldn't tell you one thing about him.

And I think in that 2004 season, Gary Crowton threw him in there, I think he blocked a punt, caught a touchdown pass at the end of the game against Air Force. It's like, wow, who is this guy? And he was skinny, you know, and I talked to him and he kind of told me his story and how he was a very good wide receiver in Southern California but didn't get a lot of attention. Well, he goes on a mission, comes back. all the sudden he looks like a tight end. He's filled out. And then we all know what happened with Dennis Pitta from there. So that's an example of what can happen with guys like that, that maybe get that opportunity as a walk-on and they have that fire, that drive. I mean, Brayden El-Bakri is one of those guys I talked to numerous times the last couple years and he was a guy that was just hungry and fired up every day because he wasn't on scholarship and it motivated him and he worked hard and then he ended up earning a scholarship and did a lot of great things. So BYU, in this new paradigm, I guess where they are right now, they need to find guys like that, and hope that they can develop and pan out.

DH: I remember a player named Chad Lewis, I handed out a helmet to him for the Orem Jaycees, when he was a, I think, a seventh-or eighth-grader. I was handing out equipment to him and his brother. And there's Chad, this redheaded kid with glasses that came and got his stuff. He must have been 14 or 15, but the kid played at Orem High School went on a mission to China. Came back, and I remember the year that he came back and talking to Norm Chow and he said watch this Chad Lewis kid. And I said, yeah, I remember him. He says well now he's 6-foot-6 and he can really jump and he's going to walk on here as a tight end. He ends up being an all pro in the NFL. So I think that's kind of what they're counting on.

Brandon Gurney, these guys that are preferred walk-ons do not show up on any list that we have for recruiting and signing day. They're not there. They can't talk about them. People have tried to have them talk on the record about it and the coaches won't talk about them. But we will get a chance to see some of these guys coming off their missions now, and some that are here and have signed with them and you gotta credit them — some of these guys are pretty good.

BG: Chaz Ah You is the one that jumps out at you, just because he was able to contribute and I believe he's a mid-year enrollee. That'd be one of the guys. A guy I really like is Tyler Beatty from Payson. But when you talk about the walk ons I really liked Nathan Upham, who you mentioned, from Skyridge, and Mason Wake from Lone Peak I think could be another potential really good get. I think it's extraordinary how much we're talking about preferred walk-ons. I can never remember a year where it was even a thought about a preferred walk-on. I mean, you have Braedon Whissler going on a TV station making his announcement as a preferred walk on. It's extraordinary, and I think a lot of that is due to the two signing periods, where most of the guys are, we're finding, signing in December. So what do you cover? Preferred walk-ons. You celebrate and all that, and good for these kids. I mean, they get a little notoriety. I do think that the recruiting attention's become obnoxious, with the Twitter and all that. I mean Twitter's ruined a lot of things in our society and I tend to think it's kind of ruined recruiting.

DH: They've kind of taken control of it, the athletes themselves.

BG: Yeah, they're not going to wait for some gooney reporter to break their news, they're going to do it themselves. That kind of slapped me in the face about five years ago. It's completely changed. But it is what it is.

DH: I am blessed to announce that I am going to sign with ... pick your college.

BG: Hashtag blessed.

DH: Well let's shift gears a little bit and talk about basketball. This is a crucial week in the West Coast Conference because BYU's men and women's basketball teams are both in second place. Second place is a big deal in this league. Because if you can maintain a first- or second-place position you will get a bye all the way to the semi finals in Las Vegas. And BYU right now has a game, game and a half lead on the other contenders, St. Mary's and San Francisco. They're going to play San Diego. Jeff Call, you'll be down there. But this is a team in San Diego that they're 3-4 against down there and I don't know if I'd pick them to go down there and win this game.

JC: You know, that's one of the places that BYU's struggled with in this time that they've been in the West Coast Conference. And a lot of it has do with the style of play. I think San Diego is a team very similar, they've got four seniors that start, they've had some injuries. Dave Rose yesterday said that there are at full strength and so they're going to be waiting for BYU. They're coming off a very disappointing loss at Pepperdine last Saturday, kind of a heartbreaking loss, so it's gonna be very difficult. BYU's gonna have to be able to play one of its best games of the year to pull off this win on Thursday.

DH: One of the things, Brandon Gurney, in the last seven games, is it seems like BYU's taken a step forward with their defense. They've been able to have a lot of stops, that's kept them in games when their offense is not working particularly well. And then it seems like they've had a few people step up. TJ Haws is finding a better role when the ball's in his hands. Yoeli Childs, I still don't like it when he's out there shooting 3's and goes 1 for 5 when you want him to get down low. But when he does he's extremely effective. And then Gavin Baxter's come on. These seven games that they've played and have started to win has been pretty impressive.

BG: Yeah, there's been a lot of griping this season. A lot of people that think BYU's reached some new lows and they're just not as good of a product. But look at where BYU's at right now. And what was the talk throughout this year — the West Coast Conference is better, it's more competitive. Well, BYU is second place. I think that's extraordinary. I think that's a really good mark and you're seeing the impact of Gavin Baxter, Nick Emery seems to be finding his groove back a bit, and you're seeing some progression. I was a little frustrated seeing them struggle like they did it against Pacific because, I mean, you see what they did against St. Mary's and you think it's going to continue. But they still won that game by 10 points. I think it's a credit to Dave Rose and people are going to complain for the rest of the year. Why didn't Gavin Baxter play earlier, and Rose has given numerous explanations about that. Forget about it! Just take for what he is right now and where the team is right now. I mean, could you expect BYU to be in any better position in the West Coast Conference than second place? No. And that's where they're at, and Gavin Baxter's playing phenomenal. So it's a good product and we'll see what this team can do.

JC: One guy that I think everyone kind of overlooks, who's been kind of a behind-the-scenes catalyst, or at least not a visible catalyst really, is McKay Cannon. He didn't start until conference play started and he's not gonna be extraordinarily flashy, you know, but you look at his numbers in conference play. I mean, his 3-point percentage, which is about 48 percent, field goal percentage over 50 percent, assist-to-turnover ratio is like 21 to 4 or something. He's a guy that just quietly does those things on the offensive side, let alone on the defensive side, where he basically is assigned to guard the best guard on the other team. There's a lot of good guards in the West Coast Conference and he has done a very good job with that. Again, he doesn't get a lot of attention. But I think just quietly he just does his job. And aside from all that, what he does, I think his experience and senior leadership has really helped this team.

DH: I think, would it be safe to say that seven wins in the last nine games has been based on the team that's come together, using their experience and chemistry to play more like a team? Going back in January they were hard to watch. I looked at them and I said, this is a hard team to watch. It doesn't seem like their basketball IQ is very high. Doesn't seem like the coaches can get them to do what they need to do. It doesn't seem like the coaches have an answer for what they need to do. And then all the sudden, things start to come together better and I think it started with defense. Before we leave basketball, the women. They were sailing along pretty high and then they lose a couple of games and now they're in the thick of it.

BG: Yeah, three games in a row. It was pretty brutal, but I think they've largely rebounded from it. I tend to think Shaylee Gonzales, who's been just amazing as a freshman, I think she might have hit a wall. It's pretty common for first-year players, they go a round then you just hit something. She really struggled during that three-game losing streak and I think that was a direct result. But I think it was Sara Hamson coming on, regaining form, and Shaylee Gonzalez kind of getting over that. I think they're going to be fine.

DH: Let's shift gears to the cyberspace. Let's talk about what's been going around on message boards and those things. The realm where the sky is almost always falling. Brandon Gurney, what do you have?

BG: A lot of the focus on the message board and kind of the talk on Twitter and all that is just how the state of Utah does not keep its top prospects. You look at Puka Nacua, who waited late and went to Washington, as a pretty common thing. And it's affected BYU and also Utah. Utah's not able to get these guys. And there's been some lists about the top recruit in-state - they're not staying. They're going to USC, they're going to Washington and all that. And I think it's kind of a big surprise for Utah, whereas Utah thought with the Pac-12 affiliation they could keep a lot of these kids. And we're just talking about the top kid. I mean, each kid's individual, but I think the allure of just going somewhere else is a really big thing. When a kid has an opportunity to go elsewhere and try something different, I think that's really appealing and I think it makes a lot of sense, not just for Utah kids, but for kids anywhere. Just the ability to do that. I think that's kind of the general thing. I don't think it should be a worry point at all.

DH: I would agree, Jeff Call. I think back in the old days — you take a player like Kalani Sitake, even as late as Sione Takitaki. He grew up in an environment where his parents wanted him to go to BYU. They insisted that he go to BYU, his mother demanded that he go to BYU, he was brought up a BYU fan. And a lot of those athletes in that realm ended up going to BYU. And now it seems like another generation is kind of caught away with the allure of a Washington and a Southern Cal and an Alabama and they're saying, You know what? Yeah, yeah, BYU, but I want to go to the big-time. I want to go to a team that their coach is making $8 million and they've got a staff that's 35 people rather than 12 or 13. The whole thing has changed to where those things matter a lot to these kids.

JC: Yeah. And I think — the Nacua family, I think, they were BYU family, right? Now we're seeing a shift. And you know, the other interesting thing that I never thought I would see is just some of these legacy kids, kids with names that are associated with one school and then they kind of break ranks and go maybe to an opportunity that's better for them or maybe there's opportunities there that they didn't have at BYU. So yeah, things have changed so dramatically and I think a lot of coincides with, you know, this independence era and Utah going to the Pac-12, and there's a lot of other factors too. But it's just crazy to think how different it is. Guys you thought were locked in to BYU because of their legacy of the name, doesn't necessarily hold true that that's going to happen.

DH: The rest of the story I'm working on today and it will be published, I think, later tonight. Jeff Grimes is looking for a new offensive line coach and I'll give you the update on that as he tries to select somebody to replace Ryan Pugh, and he's looking for somebody like Ryan Pugh. It must be noted also that Dallas Reynolds did not interview for this job. He gave up coaching, he decided he wants something else for his family as far as his time and his effort and that. But he was a popular choice by a lot of people, Dallas Reynolds, and so they will be bringing in an outsider. I would think that he would be from a group of five or a power five situation and they're going to pay the guy some money to get him here. That's my prediction and you can look for that in the column I have written to be published in print on Thursday. The rest of the story for you, Jeff.

JC: Well, this week I think it was on Monday, I was able talk to Jaren Hall, BYU quarterback. So I went to kind of the BYU baseball Media Day and I wasn't expecting to talk to Jaren Hall that he was made available and — I think people are aware that he's trying to be a dual sport athlete and play baseball. And baseball coach Mike Littlewood said that when Jaren Hall showed up in January he kind of thought, well you know, he's going to realize pretty quick that he's not — he hasn't played baseball in three years, it's going to take him some time, he's probably gonna want to take some time off and focus on football. But to his surprise, Jaren Hall shows up and he's playing at a really high level. In fact, Mike Littlewood said he's vying for a starting job, he's that good. And so Jaren Hall's going to be splitting time between football and baseball. Obviously football is the No. 1 priority because he's on football scholarship, but he also loves baseball and I think we're going to see him quite a bit on the diamond. What's interesting, the other thing that's kind of the X-factor all this, with Zach Wilson not throwing in spring ball there's an opportunity for these guys, the backup quarterbacks, to really take a step forward and get a lot of experience. And so you throw that in the mix as well. It's gonna be really fascinating when we have Jaren Hall, Joe Critchlow and Baylor Romney taking the snaps. And then you see Jaren Hall kind of jumping over to baseball from time to time. We may see a situation like Ryan Hancock back in the day where he may play baseball and then go play in the spring game on the same day. So we'll see how that works out.

DH: Be nice to have that kind of talent, wouldn't it? Brandon Gurney, what kind of rest of the story do you have?

BG: I want to add to the Jaren Hall thing. Because I saw him play a lot in high school and I saw him play all three sports, he played basketball as well. I always thought baseball was his best sport. And that's not to disparage his football skills at all, because I've always thought he's going to be a really good football player. But seeing him play baseball, he's just smooth out there. I thought he was the best player in the state playing center field for Maple Mountain. And I thought, if this kid wants to go to the next level, I think baseball's his best ticket. Again that's not to disparage anything that he can do on the football field, because I think he can be very good there. But if I'm him, I think baseball's it. And fans are going, we don't care about baseball. But for him, I've always thought that baseball would be his best course of action. I mean, that's my hot take on that, having seen him. But I think he's that good at baseball. I think what Jeff just told us kind of kind of validates that.

DH: The final word. I had an opportunity over the weekend to talk with Zach Jones. He's a high school senior at Lone Peak High School, he signed a letter of intent to play golf for BYU, he was the state medalist on I think about a 60-foot put on the final hole to win medalist honors and he has gone down to St. George in the winter portion of the Utah Golf Association tournaments in performance points and he's won two out of three tournaments and finished second in another one. A guy to watch for. He was on an official visit this past week at BYU. Zach Jones, somebody to think about and to watch as a future guy. He's going to go on a mission first, I think he's gonna leave in July, but he will be playing in the Utah State Amateur come the middle of the summer. And it'll be interesting to see. Very talented kid. These kids are amazing. The only weigh about 150 pounds and they can hit the ball 300 yards. They're amazing to see these kids play. Jeff, your final word.

JC: Well, again, heading down to the sunny climes of San Diego tomorrow. Going back to this game. This is a huge game for BYU. Again, going back to BYU's lack of success at San Diego, they really need this win if they want to lock up that second seed. And Dick, you mentioned it, if you get a second seed this year in the tournament, you get a bye all the way to the semis, don't play till Monday. I think it's a huge, huge advantage. So this is a big game. And San Diego is 11-1 this season at home. So keep that in mind. It's going to be really hard for BYU to win. But you know, if they put things together, they keep playing the kind of defense they've been playing, they've got a shot.

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BG: Yeah, I'm really interested to see what the men's volleyball team does this weekend. They had a shocking road trip where they were just swept and they just weren't really in matches at all. And it's a very young team, a very talented team. BYU's always very talented. But I'm really interested to see how they rebound and if this team can actually do something this year.

DH: That'll wrap it up. Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Cougar Insiders podcast. We'd love to hear from you through the email at [email protected], and please subscribe or download our podcast wherever you find it. We're working to deliver you the most up to date information on BYU sports and we love to have you join us.