Having lost No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson and four other stalwarts to the NFL Draft after the 2020 season, and facing seven teams from Power 5 conferences, the BYU Cougars were supposed to be in rebuilding mode in 2021. Guess again.
The Cougars defeated six of those P5 programs; went 5–0 against the Pac-12, including a convincing 26–17 win over Rose Bowl participant and rival Utah; and put together another outstanding season marred only by a 31–28 upset loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl. The Cougars have gone 21–4 the past two seasons.
So what will 2022 be like? For one thing, it will be BYU's last as a college football independent. The Cougars will join the Big 12 in 2023.
Unlike in 2021, however, the Cougars are not rebuilding. They return 18 of 22 starters and are replacing only four key contributors — running back Tyler Allgeier, receiver Neil Pau'u, center James Empey and defensive end Uriah Leiataua.
Expectations are high for the Cougars, if they can stay healthy. Mid- and late-season injuries last year derailed a special year, one that seemed headed toward another 11- or 12-win campaign until stars such as linebackers Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar, Empey, Pau'u and even quarterback Jaren Hall were unable to finish.
"These guys love each other," head coach Kalani Sitake said when the Cougars wrapped up spring practices on March 31. "They are not happy with how the season ended, and you saw it in the way that they approached the offseason."
Previewing BYU's Offense for 2022
History has proven that whenever BYU has a senior quarterback, the Cougars have thrived on offense, so that portends good things in 2022. Technically, Hall is listed as a junior on BYU's roster, but this will be his fifth season in Provo, and he's hinted that it will be his last. By all accounts, Hall was in complete control of the offense in spring camp, and he added some arm strength to his repertoire through offseason workouts with former BYU QB John Beck and others.
Days after Allgeier declared for the NFL Draft, Sitake and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick were able to lure Cal transfer RB Christopher Brooks away from the likes of Purdue and Notre Dame. Brooks was easily BYU's biggest offseason addition and could make the kind of impact that Washington transfer receiver Puka Nacua did in 2021, coaches say.
The offensive line should be a strength. Offensive line coach Darrell Funk can go nine or 10 deep there.
Nacua and fifth-year senior Gunner Romney form a solid one-two punch at the receiver spots. The Cougars finished spring camp with Keanu Hill, Chase Roberts, Brayden Cosper and Kody Epps competing to be WR3.
Previewing BYU's Defense for 2022
BYU's defense was solid to start the 2021 season, contributing to the Cougars' big wins over Arizona State, Utah and Washington State. But injuries eventually took their toll, and the Cougars struggled to stop the run in losses to Boise State and Baylor and wins over Virginia and USC.
Stopping the run is a big emphasis for defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki's group in 2022, even as the Cougars try various defensive fronts in a never-ending effort to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Developing depth is another point of emphasis, so injuries to top-line players don't have as much of an impact as they did in 2021.
"It seems like the same thing every year — our concerns are keeping them healthy, mostly," Tuiaki says. "If we can stay healthy, and the ball bounces the right way, we have a chance to have a pretty special year."
If the aforementioned Pili and Wilgar return at full health, linebacker will be the unit's strength.
Defensive end Tyler Batty returns for a front looking to be more disruptive, while three-year starting free safety Malik Moore anchors a secondary that has plenty of experience at cornerback but is looking for someone to step up at the strong safety spot. The candidates there are converted cornerback Micah Harper and Hayden Livingston, among others.
The best addition on defense is Vanderbilt transfer corner Gabe Jeudy-Lally, who brings SEC experience.
Previewing BYU's Specialists for 2022
Punter Ryan Rehkow and kicker Jake Oldroyd combine to give BYU one of the best specialist tandems in the country. The three-year starters should vie for postseason honors, if they get enough attempts to qualify. Oldroyd was 9-of-13 on field-goal attempts in 2021, while Rehkow averaged 48.6 yards per punt on 40 attempts. Punt returner Hobbs Nyberg and primary kick returners Caleb Christensen and Lopini Katoa are also back.
The Cougars will score a lot of points in 2022 because their offense was explosive in 2021 and has almost every key ingredient is back. If BYU can develop a stingier defense and find some playmakers on that side of the ball, watch out. The Cougars' final season of independence could be memorable.
However, if the defense struggles to get off the field like it did in 2021, problems could follow. Certainly, several teams provided a blueprint last year on how to beat the Cougars. Their prolific offense can't score from the sidelines as 10-, 11- and 12-play drives from opponents become the norm.
Oregon, Baylor, Notre Dame and Arkansas will provide tough tests, as will road games at Boise State, Stanford and Liberty. If the Cougars put together a third straight 10-win season, they will have earned it.
National Ranking: 27
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