Ignore the calendar that still says February, it’s time for spring football. At least at BYU anyway. The Cougars open up their second year under head coach Kalani Sitake.
Sitake posted a solid a 9-4 record in year one capped off with a victory in the Poinsettia Bowl over Wyoming.
Gone are a trio of stars in quarterback Taysom Hill, running back Jamaal Williams, and safety Kai Nacua. The Cougars will be looking to find the replacements to these and other key players starting with spring ball kicking off today.
Who will be the players that emerge to fill those spots left behind by those three players? Also, what are the other storylines to keep an eye on over the next month at Camp Cougar? Let’s dive into that.
5 Storylines to Watch in BYU’s Spring Practice
1. Replacing stars
As I mentioned, BYU has three players that it is trying to replace in 2017 who were a significant reason why the Cougars won nine games a year ago.
There’s no debate as to who will replace Tayson Hill at quarterback. Junior Tanner Mangum resumes his career as BYU’s top signal-caller. Mangum started in 12 games in 2015 and also was the starter in the bowl game two months ago after Hill suffered am injury.
Mangum is viewed by many at BYU as the next star quarterback in Provo. He was excellent in 2015 and there’s a lot to be excited about entering this season.
Mangum’s skill set is tailored for coordinator Ty Detmer’s pro-style offense that at times last season, went by the wayside to accommodate Hill’s excellent running abilities. Will BYU be putting up the video game numbers that the Cougars were accustomed to while Detmer was under center from 1988-91? No, don’t expect anything like that. But there’s no excuse for BYU to not be more consistent on offense in 2017.
At running back, it will be no small task to replace Jamaal Williams, BYU’s all-time leading rusher, but there are three players that people need to focus on. Junior Squally Canada was Williams’ primary backup last season and he is believed to have the inside track for the starting job entering spring. Sophomore Riley Burt and true freshman Ula Tolutau will be Canada’s biggest challenges on the depth chart.
Replacing Kai Nacua will be a difficult challenge but four-star true freshman Chaz Ah You is believed to be enrolled in school already and is going to be participating in spring football. If anything, this should give Ah You an excellent opportunity to compete for a starting role right away.
2. Competition at wide receiver
BYU also loses its top three receivers from a year ago, but then again the production from this group as a whole could be described as underwhelming, at best. No receiver posted a 100-yard game in 2016. With Mangum back at quarterback, there will be more trust in the ability to air it out. The question becomes who emerges as the Cougars’ go-to pass catchers?
Senior Jonah Trinnaman is a speedster junior college transfer who didn't have as smooth of a transition to the FBS level as many envisioned after signing out of Snow (Utah) College. He is expected to make a push to be BYU’s No. 1 receiver this spring. After that, look for Detmer to settle in on a lot of two-wide receiver sets this season. Sophomore Micah Simon is an intriguing prospect who was a star of spring ball last year before redshirting later in the fall. Also, JUCO transfer Beau Tanner could turn some heads during the spring.
3. Growth in year two
The first year is always a learning process for everyone involved when there’s a coaching change at a major college football program. Everything from technique to vocabulary to new practice structure are things that must be taught, learned and sometimes it takes time for everyone to get on the same page and acclimated to the new staff and culture. That was the case for BYU last year, as new head coach Kalani Sitake retained just one assistant from Bronco Mendenhall’s staff.
Now in year two, how far along are the players into the playbooks and knowledge of the systems they are running on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball? It shouldn’t take too long into the spring sessions to get a sense.
4. Trench play
Sitake has made an emphasis to improve the depth of his program. So far, one of the areas this is becoming noticeable is with the uptick in talent along the line of scrimmage.
BYU added four defensive linemen who enrolled in January to get a head start on the 2017 season by being able to participate in spring football, and pass-rushing specialist Sione Takitaki is rumored to be returning as well.
The offensive line has the potential to be the Cougars’ best since becoming an independent in 2011. The roster boasts 15 scholarship athletes along the offensive line, which is music to Sitake’s ears. Last year, BYU only had seven offensive linemen during the spring, which impacted not only what Sitake and his staff were able to do but also how they approached the spring game. Numbers shouldn’t be a problem this year.
5. Wealth of talent at cornerback
Since Sitake took over as BYU’s head coach, the Cougars have zeroed in on identifying under-the-radar defensive backs that have their best football ahead of them. Assistant head coach Ed Lamb has had a track record of developing defensive backs that go on to the NFL from his days as the head coach at FCS member Southern Utah. Cornerback has been an area of focus for the staff and it’s already paying off with a pair of talented sophomores returning in expected starters Troy Warner and Dayan Lake.
BYU’s staff feels the Cougars go about three-deep right now at cornerback and they’ll add two more talented freshmen from the San Diego area this fall.
Pre-Spring Outlook for BYU
One thing that head coach Kalani Sitake proved he could accomplish in year one was making BYU competitive in every game they played in. The Cougars were the cardiac kids of college football last season as nearly every game went down to the wire, including the bowl game.
BYU has a tough schedule yet again in 2017. The Cougars open a season with an FCS opponent for the first time since 2008, but then travel to Houston to take on LSU, who could be a preseason top-10 team. BYU then returns home for a pair of games against rival Utah, who has defeated the Cougars six straight times, and then the Cotton Bowl champion Wisconsin Badgers, who will be the first Big Ten team to ever play in Provo.
Quality depth will be necessary for BYU to come out of that four-game stretch with its head above water, but Cougar fans will be the first to tell you that there is no better man for the job than Sitake, who begins the process of putting together his 2017 roster.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is publisher of Rivals' BYU site, CougarNation.com and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.