During the latter part of the 2019 season, after BYU had become bowl eligible, school officials rewarded head coach Kalani Sitake with a contract extension through the 2023 season. The Cougars promptly lost their final two games to teams they used to dominate when they were part of a conference — 13–3 to San Diego State and 38–34 to Hawaii in the SoFi Hawaii Bowl — and a lot of goodwill Sitake was seemingly re-establishing with BYU’s large, but somewhat skeptical, national fan base went out the window.
It is under that cloud of discontent that the Cougars begin the fifth year of the Sitake era still looking to find their footing after Bronco Mendenhall’s departure for Virginia in 2015. And the college football independent still has another rugged September schedule, with Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State and Minnesota lined up in the first month.
Previewing BYU's Offense for 2020
BYU’s offense should continue to improve in 2020 with the return of quarterback Zach Wilson. The junior should benefit from a full offseason of workouts and conditioning, after missing the lead-up to last season recovering from shoulder surgery.
Despite missing four games in 2019 with a fractured thumb, Wilson threw for 2,382 yards and 11 touchdowns. Still, his starting job is in question because rising sophomores Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney performed well and won games in his absence, with Hall beating Utah State and Romney beating Boise State and Liberty.
The offense’s prospects got a boost when three-year starting tight end Matt Bushman announced in December that he would be returning for his senior season rather than turn pro. Bushman has caught 125 passes for 1,719 yards and nine TDs in his career, and he is closing in on several school records for a tight end.
His return is big because BYU lost three standout receivers — Aleva Hifo, Talon Shumway and Micah Simon — to graduation and doesn’t have much experience, or many playmakers, at the wideout positions. Juniors Gunner Romney, Dax Milne and Neil Pau’u, who sat out last season with legal issues, will try to fill the void. BYU is also hoping for big things from redshirt freshman Keanu Hill and prized recruit Kody Epps of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
Every player who started on the offensive line in 2019 returns, most notably Outland Trophy candidate Brady Christensen and Rimington Trophy candidate James Empey. Those two have started the last 26 games together. Seniors Kieffer Longson and Tristen Hoge are multiple-year starters, and coaches believe sophomore right tackle Blake Freeland has NFL potential.
At running back, BYU was expected to feature Utah’s graduate transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole, but he chose to transfer to Utah State in July. With Henry-Cole out of the mix, returning contributors Lopini Katoa, Jackson McChesney and converted linebacker Tyler Allgeier will handle the bulk of the work on the ground.
Previewing BYU's Defense for 2020
Defensively, the Cougars had their struggles in 2019 but should be a bit better if they can find replacements for two outstanding safeties, Dayan Ghanwoloku and Austin Lee.
The return of Khyiris Tonga, another guy who is back for his senior season after toying with the idea of turning pro, was much needed for a defensive line that struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2019. BYU ranked 117th in the country in sacks per game and was feasted upon by opposing QBs such as Hawaii’s Cole McDonald and Washington’s Jacob Eason.
The defense should also be bolstered by two guys who missed most of 2019 due to injury — Zayne Anderson (shoulder) and Chris Wilcox (knee). Anderson was a linebacker before getting injured in 2018 and failing to recover adequately in 2019, but he has the speed to play safety, maybe even cornerback. Wilcox has played corner but is big enough to move to safety if needed there.
Senior Troy Warner, brother of San Francisco 49ers star Fred Warner, is poised for a big year.
At linebacker, BYU looks solid with a couple of seniors in Isaiah Kaufusi and Kavika Fonua and sophomores Payton Wilgar and Max Tooley. The unit is filled with ballhawks and tallied 10 of the team’s 15 interceptions.
Previewing BYU's Specialists for 2020
The Cougars were just 17-of-27 on field-goal attempts in 2019, and several misses cost them wins. Former high school All-America kicker Skyler Southam transferred to Utah; Jake Oldroyd (16-of-24) returns and should be pushed by returned missionary Ryan Rehkow. Those two will also battle to be the starting punter. Kick-return duties are wide open, as Hifo has moved on.
BYU should be better in 2020, but that progress might not show in the win-loss column early with a killer schedule. Sitake spent a lot of time talking in the offseason about building depth, after the Cougars faltered late in several games and sustained an inordinately high number of injuries the past few seasons. BYU will score points — it has three talented quarterbacks and a veteran offensive line — but the question will be whether the Cougars can keep teams from lighting up the scoreboard on them. If not, another 7–6 season, or worse, could be in the cards.
National Ranking: 51
(Top photo by Gabriel Mayberry/BYU)