Cougars are coming off a highly successful season but must replace several key contributors on both sides of the ball
BYU starts spring football practices in March with unbridled optimism. The Cougars are coming off the program's most successful season since becoming an FBS independent in 2011. BYU went 11-1, capped off by a lopsided victory over UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl, and finished No. 11 in the AP Top 25 Poll. It marked the school's highest final ranking since 1996.
Building on that success won't be a simple task. Several stars from last season's team — including quarterback Zach Wilson — entered the 2021 NFL Draft, leaving the Cougars with holes to fill at key positions on both sides of the ball. BYU also faces a daunting schedule featuring seven Power 5 opponents. Will the rebuilding turn into reloading? The Cougars have a few questions to answer in the spring to open the door for success in the fall.
5 Storylines to Watch During BYU's Spring Practices
1. Who will succeed Zach Wilson as starting quarterback?
Wilson cemented his legacy as one of the all-time great BYU quarterbacks with an outstanding junior season. He threw for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2020 with just three interceptions. Wilson ranked second nationally in completion percentage (.735), third in total passing yards, and touchdown passes, and sixth in completions (247). Replacing a playmaker of his caliber will not be easy. Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney have the inside track to win the job given their experience in the program. Hall sat out the 2020 season with injuries but he is mobile and athletic when healthy. He threw for 420 yards and a touchdown in 2019 while making one start. Romney was Wilson's primary backup a year ago and is an efficient passer. He went 3-0 as a starter in his freshman season and has thrown for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns over two seasons. Freshmen Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters will push for the starting job as well.
2. What will the offense look like with a new coordinator?
Jeff Grimes left for Baylor in the offseason after spending three years as BYU's offensive coordinator. Kalani Sitake stayed in-house for his replacement, naming quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick as the new OC. Wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake succeeds Roderick as the passing game coordinator. BYU ranked third among FBS teams in scoring offense under Grimes last season, averaging 43.5 points per game. The Cougars were also seventh in total offense (522.2 ypg) and eighth in passing offense (332.1 ypg). Roderick assumed some play-calling duties while Grimes oversaw the offense, so there should not be much change in strategy and philosophy going into 2021. Roderick also has prior offensive coordinator experience at Utah, serving two stints as the Utes' OC in 2010 and from 2015-16.
3. Can BYU fill holes at the line of scrimmage?
Wilson's outstanding play and the emergence of Tyler Allgeier in the backfield were made possible by a veteran offensive line that opened up holes and bought time for BYU's playmakers. The Cougars face the tough task of finding replacements for Brady Christensen, Chandon Herring, and Tristen Hoge after all three players declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. The defensive line also will lose some key standouts like Khyiris Tonga and Zac Dawe. Gabe Summers and Tyler Batty are poised to be the next big stars on the defensive line. The offensive line is more of a work in progress while the coaches try different combos to get a starting five.
4. How will new assistant coaches impact the Cougars?
Sitake brought in a pair of experienced assistant coaches to fill holes on his coaching staff after Jeff Grimes and offensive line coach Eric Mateos both left for Baylor following the end of the 2020 season. Darrell Funk takes over as the team's new offensive line coach. Kevin Clune also joins BYU as the Cougars' new linebackers coach. Funk brings 33 years of coaching experience to the program and has coached the offensive line at Michigan, Purdue, San Diego State, Colorado State, Ball State, and UTSA. Clune has 28 years of coaching experience, which includes stints as a defensive coordinator at Oregon State, Utah State, and Hawaii.
5. Who will emerge for BYU in the secondary?
Seniors Troy Warner, Chris Wilcox, and Zayne Anderson are moving on. The Cougars have a good mix of talented playmakers and experience in the defensive backfield if they can stay healthy back there in the season ahead. Chaz Ah You could move back to safety from linebacker to bolster the secondary. Malik Moore should also be a difference-maker. Both players were limited by injuries a year ago. George Udo and Micah Harper are both rising stars who enjoyed breakout seasons in 2020. Udo, ranked second for BYU in tackles for a loss (5.5).
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo, courtesy of byucougars.com)