PROVO — In Year One under offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, the BYU offense was hoping for positive results.
But in Year Two under Grimes, the Cougars are expecting positive results.
So what does quarterback Zach Wilson expect from the offense in 2019?
“Shoot, I expect us to score every drive," Wilson said. "This sounds stupid to say, but I don’t think any defense should be able to stop us. BYU’s offense hasn’t been as great as it should have been the last couple of years, but honestly I can say, we’ve got the personnel, we’ve got the coaches and we’ve got the scheme.
"Guys have the heart to get it done. I’m just excited for this year because everyone wants to come together," he continued. "It’s just a different mentality than last year. We started showing things at the end of the year and I think that’s what is making people want to really invest more time now because they really believe that we can be good.”
BYU opened the 2018 season with Tanner Mangum at quarterback and an offensive scheme that featured a steady diet of jet sweeps and power runs. The Cougars claimed impressive wins at Arizona and No. 6 Wisconsin with that style, but they sputtered against Cal, Washington and Utah State.
When Wilson took over for Mangum midway through the season, BYU began moving the ball vertically downfield by relying on Wilson’s ability to throw deeper passes and make plays with his legs. The results were mostly good, except for the six points scored in a home loss to Northern Illinois. The new offensive focus helped the Cougars come close to knocking off Boise State and Utah on the road.
Grimes offered a candid assessment of the offense heading into his second year as the play caller.
“We have a lot of experience coming back from a group that performed well at times and at other times, not well enough," Grimes said. "I think we’re still a group that has a lot to prove. Last year we showed two things — we can play with anybody when we play well and we showed during the latter half of the year that we’re capable of much more.
“Once we made the switch with Zach and made a bit of a change with our style, our numbers increased by a little more than 10 points per game and 70 yards per game," he continued. "I’m looking forward to another jump in that same regard. I think our overall numbers should improve.
"I think we should turn the ball over less. I think we should give up fewer sacks. Everything ought to be better because we have a lot of the same players coming back with even more experience.”
Going back to last season, coach Kalani Sitake has referred to Wilson as a "gunslinger” and he wants to see the offense air it out and light up the scoreboard.
“I've been trying to let Zach loose for a long time now,” Sitake said after BYU’s 49-18 victory over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last December. “I think an aggressive style of football is what we need to have on offense.”
The Cougars' offense has seemed to have established an identity.
“We had a couple of different identities as an offense (last season) and we really know what we want to do now,” Wilson said. “This next year, I think we’re going to do some really dangerous things. … It was just proving that we could be a dominant offense at times last year. Especially the scheme we’ve been switching to this year and finding our identity has made it really appealing to the rest of the team.”
Aside from Wilson’s emergence, BYU is returning an offensive line with considerable experience, anchored by center James Empey, left tackle Brady Christensen and right guard Tristen Hoge. Freshman Harris LaChance is listed as the starter at right tackle. Chandon Herring, Kieffer Longson, Thomas Shoaf, Caden Haws, Keanu Saleapaga and Clark Barrington provide the Cougars with depth on the O-line.
“They did some good things last year but didn’t really perform the way that I think a really good, seasoned group can. The excuse of being young is removed now,” Grimes said of the offensive line. “I expect them to play better, I expect them to be more physical, I expect them to be tougher.
"If they are, then our offense will succeed at a higher level. If they’re not, then it will be left up to the skill guys to make up for that," he continued. "I don’t want to do that. I want the offensive line to lead the charge.
"I think they’re moving in the right direction but we won’t know for sure until we get into the season and we’re tested against some good competition. The good news is, that will come pretty soon.”
As for playmakers, BYU should have more weapons than it did a year ago.
Tight ends Matt Bushman and Moroni Laulu-Pututau return as do wide receivers Aleva Hifo, Talon Shumway, Gunner Romney, Micah Simon and Dax Milne. Neil Pau’u pleaded not guilty to a DUI charge in June and his status is unknown.
At running back, the Cougars return Lopini Katoa, Kavika Fonua and Tyler Allgeier, plus they signed grad transfers Ty’Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa. Since spring practice, the running back spot suddenly has gone from one of the weakest positions to one of the strongest.
BYU has more experience at every position and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said the coaching staff is more comfortable with the scheme and the personnel going into the upcoming season.
“Last year, Coach Grimes went through a process. We were a new staff. We had a lot of great ideas. It doesn’t matter what we know, it’s what the players know and what they can execute. A year ago, we had a ton of good ideas and a really fun offensive plan,” he said. “As we got into the season, we got to know our players better. Part of it was learning who our best players are and part of it was injuries.
"We had to shift gears and streamline a little more. We have great camaraderie on our staff and we know who our guys are now. We know what Matt Bushman can do. We know what Moroni can do. We know what Zach can do. We know our offensive linemen. We know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. This year’s offense is going to be tailored to our players’ strengths as much as possible. It’s still the same offense but there will be significant differences, geared toward the players.”128 comments on this story
Specifically, as a team, Roderick would like to see the offense improve “a few percentage points” on red zone scoring and on third-down conversions. BYU ranked No. 60 nationally in red zone offense percentage (.846) and No. 89 nationally in third-down conversions (36.9 percent).
“These aren’t huge, unattainable goals. We were really good in the red zone last year," Roderick said. "The difference between being in the top 25 in the nation on third down is two conversions a game.
“We’re talking about going from not great on third down to into the top 25 on third down. Those are the things that can get you over the hump and can help you close out close games. Those are the key things to taking the next step.”