BYU football players and coaches cringed when the word "rebuilding" was mentioned during spring camp after the Cougars went 11–1 in the pandemic-altered 2020 season and finished No. 11 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, their best ranking since finishing No. 5 in 1996.
But that's the stark reality for a program that insists it is simply reloading in 2021. With superstar quarterback Zach Wilson having elected to leave a year early for the NFL and several other offensive stars — receiver Dax Milne and left tackle Brady Christensen, for instance — following the first-round draft pick to the league, the Cougars don't appear capable of duplicating their best season in 24 years. A realistic goal? Finishing with a winning record should be the Cougars' primary aim in head coach Kalani Sitake's sixth year.
"I like my team," Sitake said as spring camp ended on March 26 with a 15th practice, and not a spring game or even a spring scrimmage, because too many linemen were injured. "If we can stay healthy and stay hungry, we have a chance to be a good football team."
After the 2020 dream season — the only loss was to Coastal Carolina in a game arranged two days before it was played 2,000 miles away from Provo — the Cougars are fighting against the notion that they have arrived. Seven Power 5 teams on the schedule, in addition to Boise State and heated in-state rival Utah State, should put an end to any complacency.
"We are looking forward to taking the next step and keep our leadership thriving and our culture going," Sitake says. "We've been building this thing slowly but surely. … I just want to keep developing this program, keep developing this thing into the beast that I think it can be."
Previewing BYU's Offense for 2021
At BYU, it is almost always about the quarterback, evidenced by Wilson's meteoric rise up draft boards last year, and it will really be about the QB this season as four candidates line up to replace the junior who will be plying his trade in the NFL this fall. Veterans Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney join newcomers Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters in the race to replace Wilson, and after a spirited battle in spring camp that saw all four get an even number of reps with the first-team offense, exactly nothing was settled.
BYU's passing game coordinator the past three seasons, Aaron Roderick was promoted to offensive coordinator when Jeff Grimes took the same position at Baylor. He's got a lot of work to do. Analysts say BYU lost more offensive production than any FBS team in the country, as well as three key members of a dominant offensive line.
Running backs Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa will be the strength of the offense, along with returning receivers Gunner Romney and Neil Pau'u and freshman All-America tight end Isaac Rex.
Samson and Puka Nacua, brothers who played last season at Utah and Washington, respectively, are transferring to BYU and will greatly enhance the receiving corps.
Previewing BYU's Defense for 2021
BYU's defense performed better than expected in 2020, aided by a cupcake-laden schedule built when all of the Power 5 teams on the Cougars' schedule bailed due to the pandemic, and finished among the nation's leaders in several key categories.
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki's group finished No. 10 in total defense (317.4 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring defense (15.3 points per game). But it did have some weaknesses, such as allowing opposing quarterbacks too much time to throw. BYU was just No. 65 in team sacks, with 2.17 per game.
After two offensive coaches left for Baylor, Sitake used one of those openings to beef up the defensive staff, adding veteran Kevin Clune to that side of the ball.
Clune will work with the linebackers, while former safeties coach Preston Hadley will coach the defensive ends and try to generate a better pass rush. That won't be easy; three starting defensive linemen graduated and chose not to return, most notably nose tackle Khyiris Tonga.
Sitake says that linebacker will be the strength of the defense in 2021, with Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley and Keenan Pili back. In the secondary, BYU is hoping that Chaz Ah You returns from a season-ending injury to fill in for departed safeties Troy Warner and Zayne Anderson.
Previewing BYU's Specialists for 2021
After an almost flawless season on special teams, placekicker Jake Oldroyd, punter Ryan Rehkow and most of the kick and punt returners are back in 2021. Oldroyd was a perfect 13-of-13 on field-goal attempts and 60-of-62 on PATs. Rehkow averaged 45.1 yards per punt, which would have put him among the nation's leaders had he had more than 28 attempts.
The Cougars should savor their spectacular 2020 season because chances of replicating it aren't good. They will be tested more in the first month than they were all last season, with Arizona, Utah and Arizona State up first. Boise State, Baylor, Virginia, Washington State and USC are also on the docket. The Cougars should be able to score some points — offensive line remains a team strength, and Roderick is creative enough to generate points — but stopping teams will be a huge concern.
National Ranking: 51
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(Tyler Allgeier photo courtesy of BYU Athletics)