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Silas Walker, Deseret News
BYU coach Kalani Sitake watches his team scrimmage during spring game in Provo on Saturday, March 23, 2019.

PROVO — All four of Kalani Sitake’s spring football experiences as BYU’s football coach have been different. And this season was no exception.

Since BYU hired him to replace Bronco Mendenhall as head coach, he’s tried to create physical spring camps, and he’s hit the mark most times. But he’s learned that every team is different, and what might work during one spring may not work during another.

This spring, and heading into the opener against Utah this fall, Sitake is paying close attention to injuries and taking an approach to keep players healthy. After all, starting quarterback Zach Wilson, tight end Matt Bushman and receiver Aleva Hifo lead a list of players who are all recovering from surgery. Then there are the athletes coming off two-year missions who he must ease back into the game — a number he claims is greater than anywhere else in college football.

He finds himself in a bind, a need to kindle a fire and boil the juices of heightened aggression while pulling in the reins and protecting his roster.

" We’re trying to balance between being competitive, being physical and also getting better and then approaching the things that we want to get better with our depth by providing a lot of the real-time reps. "
BYU coach Kalani Sitake

It’s a Game of Groans.

“Injuries here are so much different than other places because at other places you kind of expect them the first year, you know. Before my mission, I don't remember ever having to stretch. But after, when I got back, I had this thing called a pulled hamstring. ‘What is this?’ I asked myself.

“That's kind of what it was like for most missionaries. And I'd say the standard is that after being home for a year, you feel you have your old self back again. In the meantime, you still have that competitive drive, and the absence of football makes those guys want to get back into the swing of it right away," he continued. "I think we kind of have to save them from themselves a little bit, and that's hard to do when you're trying to win games and trying to get the best guys out there. Football is already a physical environment on its own.”

Year four for Sitake has been about proper training, the right tweak. He had guys out there during spring practices trying to dominate each other, fight for positions and win starting jobs. He can’t water that down, but he can filter what happens so he doesn’t wreck his depth chart.

“We’re trying to balance between being competitive, being physical and also getting better and then approaching the things that we want to get better with our depth by providing a lot of the real-time reps. That way we can filter out who's the best player. It's that one thing I like that we've done together as a staff this spring. It’s awesome, I love it.”

Some injuries just happen. Most impact injuries are simply the law of physics. “You can’t avoid it. But we can monitor things and help where we can,” he said.

Sitake has tried to build practices around safe drills, limiting contact, teaching not to lead tackles with helmets and tone down some physicality. Some may say today’s football is too soft, but Sitake said the first priority of any coach should be the welfare of their players.

Sitake is all for player safety and rules that enhance that. But he is not in favor of targeting penalties that seem to go beyond protection and punish players. He even stood up at the NCAA Coaches Convention and voiced that opinion.

He recognizes that may seem contradictory to some.

“I get upset about the whole targeting stuff because I don't like limiting a guy's opportunity to play, especially when there's no deliberate targeting. A lot of it just happens and I think issuing a warning would be better.

“I'm all about the player, so unsportsmanlike conduct, they get a warning. I've never seen a player kicked out for unsportsmanlike conduct twice in the game, so why not give someone a warning on targeting?" Sitake said. "You can still give them a 15-yard penalty, but I’m pretty sure they’d be a bit more mindful from then on. But a facemask is something that nobody (most the time) does deliberately, it just happens in the game. You don't kick them out of the game for it and it is dangerous.

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“I understand what they're trying to do to the game, but I think educating is more important than fear. It's still a game of 22 bodies moving all over the place and things happen. I think educating them is more important than scaring them. I honestly don't understand why they don't try it.”

If Sitake had his way, the players would come first. If guilty of targeting, penalize the team and warn the player, but don’t kick him out of the game. Some of the calls have been very debatable, particularly this past season across college football. If a guy was penalized twice in the same game, then it might be different because he is a danger to others by the way he plays. Otherwise, let him play.