BYU enters its final season as an FBS independent when spring football practices begin this week. The Cougars are set to join the Big 12 in 2023 and have never looked stronger since leaving the Mountain West Conference in 2011.
BYU is coming off back-to-back 10 win seasons for the first time since 2007. The Cougars went 10-3 a year ago and finished No. 19 in the AP Top 25 Poll. Their season ended on a sour note with a disappointing loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl.
Building on last season's success will be aided by the return of several experienced starters on both sides of the ball. BYU will need to replace star running back Tyler Allgeier, who declared for the 2022 NFL Draft after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The Cougars once again face a slate loaded with tough opponents, including five Power 5 teams.
If BYU makes a splash nationally again, a few questions will need to be answered as the Cougars move through their spring practices.
5 Storylines to Watch During BYU's Spring Practices
1. Who will succeed Tyler Allgeier as starting running back?
Replacing a running back as productive and talented as Allgeier will not be a simple task for the Cougars. Allgeier ran for 1,606 yards and 23 touchdowns last season while averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He totaled 2,736 yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground over his final two seasons at BYU. California transfer Christopher Brooks is the obvious choice to fill the void in the backfield. Brooks was the Bears' leading rusher in 2019 and '21. He ran for 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns over four seasons with California. Returning running backs Lopini Katoa, Jackson McChesney, and Miles Davis all figure to also be in the mix for backfield reps. Stanford transfer Houston Heimuli will also contribute at fullback, given his extensive experience as a blocking back.
2. Who will backup Jaren Hall at quarterback?
Hall made a splash in his first season as a full-time starter at quarterback. Hall's mobility and accuracy kept BYU opponents on their heels last season. He threw for 2,583 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes. Hall also ran for 307 yards and three scores on 62 carries. Injuries sidelined Hall for three games – including the Independence Bowl. Having a reliable backup quarterback is critical if Hall struggles with injuries again in 2022. Baylor Romney, Hall's backup in 2021, left the program during the offseason. Romney made three starts last season, throwing for 779 yards and six touchdowns. Jacob Conover and Cade Fennegan are the primary contenders to emerge as the new No. 2 signal-caller. Conover led BYU's offense during the second half of the Cougars' 34-20 win over Utah State last season. Fennegan saw time at quarterback for Boise State in 2020 before transferring to BYU a year ago. He threw for 182 yards and two touchdowns while appearing in three games for the Broncos.
3. Who will step up at tight end?
Isaac Rex will be held out of spring practices while he recovers from surgery on the ankle he injured in BYU's regular-season finale against USC back in November. Before the injury, Rex tallied 191 yards and three touchdowns on 18 catches. Dallin Holker, Masen Wake, and Carter Wheat will all get long looks at tight end. Holker and Wake both rotated with Rex last season, with 14 receptions and one touchdown catch apiece.
4. Will the Cougar defense build some depth?
BYU began last season with a stout defense and a mediocre offense. The tables turned for the Cougars by the time they reached their bowl game. Piling up yards and points was no problem with Allgeier and Hall at the controls. Getting stops became a persistent issue once injuries decimated BYU's linebackers and secondary. Linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar both had season-ending injuries a year ago and are not healed up enough to participate in spring ball. Standout cornerback Micah Harper missed all of 2021 after suffering a knee injury last spring. Safety Chaz Ah You and defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea were both hampered by injuries last season. Finding some capable playmakers who can step in when injuries pile up will be critical to BYU's success in the fall.
5. Can BYU take some steps forward before entering the Big 12?
Is a third consecutive 10-win campaign in the cards for the Cougars? That's an important question that BYU fans hope leads to an affirmative answer. BYU is capable of being competitive against a beefed-up schedule. The Cougars proved as much a year ago. But the program needs to get faster and stronger if it wants to make noise in a Power 5 league. The Cougars already started investing off the field, expanding both their coaching staff and strength and conditioning staff with new hires in the offseason. The spring will give fans a first glimpse at what difference the new additions will make.
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.