What would a media day — any media day — be without unbridled optimism? Such was the case Tuesday in Provo, where BYU players and coaches met with the media to address all things BYU football. And there was no shortage of optimism. Cougar Insiders Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney discuss the news of the day, and weigh in on whether such optimism is justified. They also talk BYU’s TV contract situation with ESPN, Zach Wilson’s shoulder and a pair of grad transfer running backs who will add depth to the Cougars’ backfield. That and more on this special media day podcast.
Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Jeff Call: Coming up on this episode of Cougar Insiders podcast, Brandon Gurney and I talked about the ESPN contract situation, Zack Wilson's health status, the running back transfers, and other salient points that came from media day that happened this week. That and more on this week's edition of Cougar Insiders podcast.
Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast today. I'm Jeff Call with the Deseret News, along with Brandon Gurney, also Deseret News. We've been covering BYU for a long time. And we're coming to you here in the middle of June because yesterday was media day. And there's a lot of stuff that happened, a lot of great interviews, a lot of insights we gleaned from yesterday. We'd like to talk about those and share some of those with you today.
And I guess first of all, Brandon, the one thing I think everybody was kind of thinking going into this media day is this would be a perfect opportunity for BYU to announce a contract extension with ESPN. To put out there that hey, this relationship is going to continue. It's already been going on since BYU announced independence, eight-year deal plus the option year, and everything seemed to point, all the signs seemed to point that media day would be the perfect opportunity for BYU to make an announcement. And then it didn't happen.
And on top of that Tom Holmoe wasn't here on media day and he had pre-recorded comments. I guess no announcement, the only announcement really was that nothing's been done to this point. It's close to being done. And basically, what's holding it up at this point is the bowl situation. I think in principle, everything's moving along and on the right track. But the bowl situation, I think BYU is looking to be more flexible in its bowl options. Brandon, what did you take away from what happened yesterday in regard to the ESPN contract?
Brandon Gurney: Well, it was a surprise and the feedback I got from fans was it just didn't feel like the normal media day in that perspective. But what I liked is just what we were able to learn from the coaches and players. I feel like I got some really good stuff. I continue to really enjoy speaking with this BYU coaching staff. Jeff Grimes is very much the anti-Anae of offensive coordinators, just what he presents. I mean, he gives great stuff. And I really appreciate it. I thought I got a lot of good insight. I don't really have anything to add with ESPN because what is there to add? It was a surprise, a surprise Tom Holmoe wasn't there. But oh well. You look at what BYU has, the team. And there's a lot of optimism and a lot of justifiable optimism when you look what BYU has returning. They really fixed that running back situation. But I enjoyed this media day more than others. I just feel like I got a lot of good info and a lot of good conversations with coaches and players that maybe I hadn't had in the past.
JC: I think one thing that stood out about this media experience was, I mean, every year we do this in June and there's always optimism. Everyone points out the bright spots and everything like that. But this year, I really felt like the coaches and players really believe that they are a good team, rather than hoping to be a good team. And I think a lot of that stems from how the season ended last year, the guys returning, there is a lot of optimism. And again, this is typical, right? I mean every media day it's everything's rosy and great and all that stuff. But you look back at last year coming off a 4-9 year there's a lot of questions about what is this offense going to look like? Who's gonna be the starting quarterback? Now we have a really good idea of the offense, who's going to be the key contributors of the offense, we know what the defense is gonna be. So for me, it was just a different kind of feel or jive.
BG: Yeah, they're definitely more comfortable. They didn't really know how to present it and all that just because there wasn't a lot that they knew, there wasn't a lot of tangible things. It was very much a work in progress, but I think they're comfortable with the program, they're comfortable with the schemes, the personnel and all that, and a lot of guys returning. A lot of guys. And I think there's a lot to be positive about this year.
JC: Yeah. So the other big I guess, question mark coming into media day that everyone wanted to know was what is the deal with Zach Wilson and his shoulder? He's had surgery it's an injury that kind of goes back to his high school days that needed to be dealt with. He did deal with it. He got surgery during the winter, sat out of spring ball, and from all indications from coaches and from Zach himself is that the plan is for him to be 100 percent. He's throwing the ball now. He only started throwing on June 1, so it's only been a few weeks, but prognosis looks good for him. And so you combine his improved health with his confidence in what he's been able to learn. I know we throw this word around a lot, being like a football junkie or basketball junkie, whatever, watching film all the time, and Zach Wilson really is that guy. I mean, coaches told me yesterday that he will send texts to them at all hours of the day and night saying, hey, I saw this play, is there a way we can utilize this in our offense? He always is thinking that way. He's just always thinking about football. So you know, take that for what it's worth. As far as we know, Zach is going to be healthy going into the season.
BG: Yeah, that's absolutely the most positive thing. I don't think there's been any negative news. I was thinking, because it seems like it's this way with BYU injuries, that it's never rectified like you think it would. It just seems like we're kind of conditioned that the worst is going to happen. Right? And with Zach Wilson it looks like everything's on schedule. I mean, he's posting video of him throwing and he confirmed he's on schedule. I think the fact that he was out there taking questions, I think was positive and it just doesn't seem like it's going to be a thing, which is absolutely the most positive offseason development for the team. I don't think there's any question, even over bringing in the two graduate transfers. I think Zach Wilson's shoulder, assuming that it is actually 100 percent, which it looks like it will be, is absolutely the best offseason news you could have hoped for.
JC: The one thing about Zach too, is yesterday I noticed this again, when he wasn't being interviewed. He was kind of just wandering around the facility and he's got a lot of confidence. He's very loose, and I just wonder how that's going to play. Something that I feel like this program needs is a guy, a leader who's not tight, not worried about failing, but just loose and that's kind of the aura that Zach gives out, is that he is confident, he's loose, he's ready to just attack whatever comes his way.
And I think that's rubbing off on his teammates and it's amazing he's only 19 and he's got teammates who are 23, 24 you know guys, returned missionaries and married and have kids and stuff, and yet he's obviously one of the leaders and they're gonna obviously rely on him heavily this year. And you mentioned it, Brandon, the other thing I thought was really cool about yesterday is they made available the two grad transfer running backs, Williams and Esukpa, and you got a chance to talk to them. Give us your breakdown on them.
BG: I was really impressed with how they carry themselves. I was very impressed with Ty'Son, but maybe particularly so with Emmanuel Esukpa. He seemed to be a really mature kid that yeah, this kid can be a BYU kid. Because you always wonder about these guys — is it gonna be a good fit, can they really fit in here? I came away, yeah, these guys knew what they were getting into, they're confident, and Emmanuel's kind of been overshadowed by Ty'Son in a lot of ways because he's the lesser profile one and he was sewed up, seems like at least a month before Ty'Son was. But I like what he brings. Talking to Coach Grimes, and man he gives you full answers on these guys I really appreciate it, but he says the exciting thing about Emmanuel is he doesn't feel that he's reached his potential quite yet. And he's excited about that. He feels he's still a developing player that can reach new heights this year beyond what he's done so far in college, and I think that's an extremely exciting thing for BYU. A true power back I mean, you look at him, he's a guy you don't want to tackle. And when you're talking about BYU running backs, durability is huge. Absolutely huge. I mean, Ty'Son's a big kid too. But Emmanuel, man, he just looks like a guy that can take on a lot of things and all three of them are going to play my opinion.
Throwing in Lopini Katoa, which is absolutely the most proven running back currently in the system, and I thought what was really interesting is talking to AJ Steward about the running backs. He mentioned that he believes Lopini is going to have his best year yet because of these guys. And I think it's a big thing because you have Lopini, you put a lot of on this kid, right? And being a sophomore not having a guy to really learn from and push you and to really take notes from about how things are done, that's a detriment to these guys. I don't care how talented you are, you need to be pushed. I think you've seen a lot of instances where you expect things from a BYU player progression-wise that he's not able to put in the time and just because maybe he doesn't have the battles, he doesn't benefit from really having a true competition in fall camp and Lopini is absolutely going to have that. And Lopini is a mature kid. I think he understands that and I think he's excited for it. AJ Steward made the comment I believe Lopini is going to make a huge jump because of this. I think it's going to really benefit where we are. When you look at this running back situation now as opposed to where BYU was out of spring camp it has dramatically changed and the coaches did an outstanding job getting these two guys.
JC: Yeah, they really did. I mean, things look pretty dire back in January, February, when you looked at the lack of depth and Brandon, I'm going to ask you this question: if you had a bet right now who's gonna be BYU's leading rusher this fall out of that group?
BG: My standing answer was Lopini Katoa, right, I still went with Lopini but, man, the more I look at Ty'Son Williams and what he's able to do and you get what coaches talk about and just what he brings back, I think I might be leaning a little more toward Ty'Son, which is really hard to say until they start practicing. And I'm a big Lopini Katoa guy, I really like him. But the fact that it's even a question, I think is a positive thing.
JC: I think one of the positives is that they're both here. They're already here. They're working out. And if they're there on day 1 on fall camp, when fall camp opens on July 31. That's another good sign that these guys are going to be contributors.
All right. Any other notes or anything that stood out to you from for media day?
BG: One thing that really stood out to me, this kind of a smaller thing, and maybe not, but you're looking at BYU's wide receivers. And that's kind of the position where someone really needs to step forward. And the theme has always been Gunner Romney, Gunner Romney, Gunner Romney. We weren't able to talk with Gunner. He was there. I saw him, but he wasn't made available to the print media. But I was able to talk to Aleva Hifo. And I was really struck by this interview, because he's just a really casual, kickback guy, just never serious. I was really struck by how serious he was. And I talked to Fesi Sitake about it and he says, yeah, I'm glad to hear that because that's what we're telling him, you need to be vocal, you need to carry yourself, that's your next progression. And you look at what he's been able to do, he can be a really productive receiver.
And I think that's kind of the last thing for this BYU offense is the wide receiver development. You know you have the offensive line, running back looks like it's going to be fine. Tight ends, great, right? But at wide receiver do they really have these guys? And I think continued progression from Aleva Hifo and if Gunner Romney becomes what everyone thinks he can become. And throw in some guys like (Neil) Pau'u, I think he's a very underrated player. I think he could have a big year as well. I think that could really round out to be a productive BYU offense and put the finishing touches in that regard.
JC: One of the things I know people get excited about is depth charts, right? I mean, it seems like the first day of camp or media day, people want to see the depth chart. I don't know about you Brandon, but one thing I've learned over the years, and this has changed, but in the last five to seven years, depth charts don't mean that much anymore. Because coaches tend to use the word or a lot. And so you've got like three or four potential starters in a bunch of positions. And then the other thing too, is BYU has in a lot of ways has kind of gone positionless in some areas. I mean, you saw how Corbin Kaufusi was used last year, he was lined up all over the field in different areas. They'd go three down linemen, four down linemen, and they really mixed coverages and nickeled and dimed, whatever. And so it's interesting to look at the depth chart, but I think more interesting is to look at the big picture and see the depth that they have. What do you think about that?
BG: I think that's a very accurate assessment. And one interview that I thought was notable in that regard, was I really tried to get (Ilaisa) Tuiaki to talk about the middle backer, who's going to play that position, because I think that's a really big hole on this defense. And he kind of touched on what you had and I thought he might, is just the traditional Uani Unga run stuff, or I'm even going back to like a Rob Morris or Shay Muirbrook type. It's not really that guy anymore. I mean, you have to be variable. You have to have a guy that can do a lot of things and just pigeonholing a guy as the middle backer and that's it. I mean, we saw that last year, we saw Corbin Kaufusi playing middle linebacker for heaven's sake. So I think they recognize that and I think moving forward, we're not going to get good answers. I mean, offensively, yeah, it's totally different. But defensively it's just a whole new game with what guys are playing. But I'm interested to see how a lot of guys are fitting in. A guy's name who I'm not hearing a lot about was Troy Warner. He's kind of disappeared and you kind of wonder how he's gonna work in. BYU's really excited about safeties and Dyan Ghanwoloku and Austin Lee, I think they're as strong as any returning safeties BYU's had for quite a while, but that's an exciting thing. When you have a talent like Troy Warner, how's he going to fit in? Then you have three JC guys coming in? You absolutely expect these guys to contribute immediately. So there's a lot of depth. And you could see it with Tuiaki, how excited he is to see how this all plays out, because they have a lot of options.
JC: So the last thing we need to talk about is Kalani Sitake. There's been a lot of talk about him not having a contract extension. He's got more than one year left on the deal, but based on what he did last year, and the potential of this team, are you surprised that BYU hasn't made the announcement or extended his deal?
BG: I long thought that yesterday was when it was going to happen. But I've heard nothing as far as chatter. Stuff like that always leaks. You have boosters who want you to know how connected they are. But there's been no chatter. There's been nothing regarding that. Which means nothing is going to happen, and nothing did happen in that regard. So yeah, I kind of wonder if the administration's gun-shy because of giving (Dave) Rose an extension? Maybe that's playing into it a little bit? I don't know. But it is kind of surprising. It just seems like it's BYU's way, and it'd be a natural thing to give him an extension. So it kind of surprised me in that regard that they haven't.
JC: I'm really not that surprised. Because I think I was telling you yesterday, years ago, when Bronco Mendenhall was kind of in the same situation, he had a year, a little bit more than a year left on his contract. And for a long time, no extension. I remember writing several stories about updates on what's going on, talking to Bronco, talking to his agent, talking to administrators at BYU, and the same message we kept getting was you know, we're talking, there's nothing to worry about, everything's fine. And that's kind of what we're getting again, and I think you hit it right on the head, Brandon. BYU is different. BYU is different than any other school in the country. They do things differently. They do it their way and in their time. And from my perspective, this again struck me yesterday talking to Kalani, he's very comfortable. He's happy here. He loves being the coach at BYU. He's excited about the future. He understands the big picture of BYU. It's not just football, it's service. It's representing the church. It's everything that he embraces. And so I don't think there's anything, really any concerns to be had from that standpoint.34 comments on this story
BG: Well, yeah. That's a really good point because I am remembering back to Bronco's days. And you make a really good point there. And as far as just being comfortable and if he's happy and if they've had discussions. If those are valid, I mean, who needs a big announcement?
JC: Well, thank you for joining us today on the Cougar Insiders podcast. We're really happy to bring you this information. We'll be having a lot of great articles here in the coming weeks that came from media day. A lot of awesome interviews and great stories that we hope you'll enjoy during the summer lull before BYU convenes for fall camp and then of course the season opener Aug. 29 against the University of Utah.