PROVO — BYU finished the 2018 season with a heartbreaking loss at archrival Utah, followed by a dominating 49-18 victory over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Those games have fueled the Cougars during the offseason.
After suffering through an abysmal 4-9 season in 2017, BYU produced a 7-6 campaign last fall. The Cougars are looking to continue their upward trajectory as they open spring practices Monday.
“Connections were made for our players and our coaches between the hard work and dedication and being dissatisfied with the results of the previous season,” said associate head coach Ed Lamb. “I think connections were made with how to work through adversity and toward more success.
“We had a pretty good balance or mix of both frustrations and breakthroughs last year. I think there’s cautious optimism. Everybody’s certainly training hard and excited for next year. But I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being in danger of being overconfident.”
BYU will hold 15 practices through March 29. The Cougars will stage their annual spring game March 23 at the school’s west campus field — the former Provo High field — due to ongoing renovations to LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Here are five big questions heading into BYU’s spring practices:
What’s the quarterback situation?
Starting QB Zach Wilson, who completed 18 of 18 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, is unable to throw during the spring after shoulder surgery.
That opens the door for other quarterbacks such as Jaren Hall, Joe Critchlow and Baylor Romney to get significant reps this spring.
“Everybody can relate to the fact that sometimes setbacks create opportunities. This is certainly a setback for Zach. If we had our choice, we’d like to have Zach competing in spring ball,” Lamb said. “But it does mean opportunities for some of the other quarterbacks on the roster to lead the offense on a day-to-day basis. We’ll have some opportunities as a staff to learn about those quarterbacks and how can they operate.
“Spring football is a competitive time. We compete, offense against defense, in scrimmage-like situations. There’s typically six or eight practices devoted to competitive, live-tackle football. Those quarterbacks will get a chance to show how much they’ve progressed and whether or not they’re ready to take over as needed.”
While Hall is also playing baseball this spring, Critchlow didn’t take any snaps last year after starting three games as a true freshman in 2017.
“Joe’s doing fantastic. He’s the consummate team player. All of the players see Joe and Jaren — those are probably the two guys that are going to get the most reps in the spring — as genuinely excited for the success of the team and the success of Zach, when he was in there leading the team,” Lamb said. “Those guys are both fiercely competitive at the same time.
“They’re both going to make the best of their opportunities this spring. They already look like different players physically. Baylor Romney is another good young quarterback that we’re excited about. He did a good job on the scout team for us last year.”
What does the coaching staff want to accomplish during spring ball?
“It’s how quickly we can get back to where we were at the end of last season. As the players take time away from practicing the skills of football, there’s some drop in our level of play,” Lamb said. “Of course, the guys are bigger now, they’re stronger and faster. It’s how quickly can we get back to the skill level and understanding of offense, defense and special teams systems. That’s the real key for us. That’s the goal.”
Developing depth and chemistry is a priority as well. Several key players like Wilson, tight end Matt Bushman, and linebackers Zayne Anderson and Isaiah Kaufusi will be limited during the spring due to offseason surgeries — giving less-experienced players a chance to show what they can do.
Who are some up-and-coming players to keep an eye on?
Several players could take a big leap forward during the spring, Lamb said, including running backs Tyler Allgeier, Sione Finau and Morgan Pyper. Another running back, Kavika Fonua, was sidelined for the 2018 season due to injury, and has returned for this season, Lamb said.
After the graduation of middle linebackers Sione Takitaki and Butch Pau’u, Jackson Kaufusi will be one of the candidates vying for the starting spot there.
Wide receiver Gunner Romney was injured most of last season, limiting his impact, and he will be participating in his first spring practices at BYU.
What does new offensive line coach Eric Mateos bring to the staff and the program?
In February, head coach Kalani Sitake announced the hiring of Eric Mateos as the offensive line coach replacing Ryan Pugh, who took the offensive coordinator’s job at Troy. Mateos spent the past two years at Texas State and prior to that had stints at Arkansas and LSU.
“So far, we’ve all enjoyed his personality. He has a nice balance between bringing a sense of humor and toughness,” Lamb said. “I can feel like he’s honored to be here as part of BYU. That’s important to a lot of us who have played here. He’s pinching himself about how excited he is to be here and be part of a program with such great tradition. He’s made a really good impression in a short time.”
Mateos has plenty of talent and experience to work with this spring with several returning starters on the offensive line — center James Empey, who was named a 2018 Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American; left tackle Brady Christensen, left guards Kieffer Longson, Thomas Shoaf and Keanu Saleapaga; and right guard Tristen Hoge.
What will be the emphasis for the defense and special teams?25 comments on this story
On the defensive side of the ball, Lamb, who is also the Cougars’ linebackers coach, is looking for “continuous improvement in ways that we improved from two years ago,” he said. “I thought we got better at what we call ‘control down defense,’ downs where you’re likely to get a fair dosage of run. We want to be great at rush defense and put teams in long-yardage situations so that we can be a better pass defense. … If we can build leads with offense, defense and special teams and put teams in longer yardage situations, that’s typically where sacks and interceptions and big plays happen on defense.”
On special teams, BYU welcomed placekicker Jake Oldroyd back from a mission. He and Skyler Southam will compete for the starting placekicking job. Oldroyd, Southam and Danny Jones will also compete to be the team’s starting punter, Lamb said.