After BYU went 9–4 in his first season and then dropped precipitously to 4–9 in his second year, Cougars coach Kalani Sitake was clearly on the hot seat in Year 3 in Provo. Known as a players coach with a fun-loving attitude and relaxed style of leadership, Sitake instilled more discipline, toughness and accountability into the program and delivered just enough wins in 2018 — a 7–6 mark, including a 49–18 win over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — to earn himself at least two more years in Provo.
The 2019 season figures to be just as important for Sitake's future, because the five-year contract he signed in 2015 expires after the 2020 season. However, it won’t be easy to duplicate last season’s winning record, given the schedule.
BYU opens against archrival Utah — the first time these 100-year foes will face off in an opener — and also has September home games against USC and Washington and road games at Tennessee and Toledo.
Given that the October schedule includes a cross-county trip to South Florida, a home contest against longtime nemesis Boise State, and a short bus ride to much-improved Utah State following a bye, it is not out of the realm of possibility for the Cougars to have to endure a lengthy losing streak, like the seven-game skid in 2017 that cost offensive coordinator Ty Detmer his job.
Previewing BYU's Offense for 2019
LSU offensive line coach and running game coordinator Jeff Grimes replaced Detmer prior to the 2018 season and produced immediate results. The Cougars had nowhere to go but up, and up they went as Grimes brought some fly sweeps and run-pass option plays from SEC country. After a 3–3 start, Sitake and Grimes sent senior starter Tanner Mangum to the bench in favor of untested freshman Zach Wilson, and the precocious teenager revived the stagnating attack and gave Cougar fans hope for the future. Wilson is the clear-cut starter in 2019, despite having offseason shoulder surgery to repair an injury that had lingered since high school.
The offense still lacks bona fide playmakers. The addition of graduate transfer running back Ty'Son Williams, who spent his freshman season at North Carolina and the last two seasons at South Carolina, should give the BYU running backs group a much-needed jolt, considering that leading returning rusher Lopini Katoa has been injury prone and Squally Canada graduated.
At receiver, big things are expected of sophomore Gunner Romney after the four-star recruit from Arizona was hampered by hamstring issues his rookie year. Star tight end Matt Bushman missed spring practices due to offseason shoulder surgery but should emerge again as one of Wilson’s favorite targets.
The Cougars will also have a deep and experienced offensive line in 2019 for new position coach Eric Mateos to work with, led by Freshman All-Americans James Empey (center) and Brady Christensen (left tackle), who are now sophomores.
Previewing BYU's Defense for 2019
Fourth-year defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki has quietly built a solid defense at BYU. The Cougars ranked No. 18 in the country in total defense and lost only a few major contributors from that unit, most notably linebacker Sione Takitaki, defensive end Corbin Kaufusi and cornerback Michael Shelton.
Tuiaki said in March that he felt like the defense struggled a bit in spring practices, especially in the spring game, but will revert to its normal self when injured players such as linebacker Zayne Anderson, cornerback Chris Wilcox and safety Austin Lee return from offseason surgeries.
Defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga, a mountain of a man at 6'4", 340 pounds, is as good a run stopper as BYU has had in quite some time, while senior safety Dayan Ghanwoloku is known as a playmaker in the secondary.
BYU traditionally struggles to find capable cornerbacks, but position coach Jernaro Gilford likes what he sees in Wilcox, D'Angelo Mandell and Isaiah Herron, among others.
Previewing BYU's Specialists for 2019
Special teams coach Ed Lamb said at the end of spring practices that sophomores Skyler Southam and Jake Oldroyd were neck-and-neck in the competition to be BYU’s placekicker in 2019. Southam is the incumbent, having booted 11 field goals in 2018. BYU went hunting in Australia for a punter a few years ago and found 6'4" Aussie rules football player Danny Jones to its liking. The junior will handle the punting chores, while Southam and Oldroyd stand ready if he falters when coaches call for something other than rugby punts.
Sitake spent a lot of the spring talking about the need to build depth and stay healthy after the Cougars faltered mightily in a fourth quarter meltdown that led to a 35–27 loss to Utah last November. BYU’s frontline players are good enough to compete with the four Power 5 opponents on its schedule, but the season could turn in the wrong direction quickly if some key performers can’t step up, especially on defense.
Wilson appears to be the real deal at quarterback. If a couple go-to receivers emerge and some talented but inexperienced running backs deliver, he's poised to have a record-setting season behind one of the better O-lines in school history.
National Ranking: 55
(Top photo courtesy of BYU Athletics)