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College Football Preview 2022: 18. BYU Cougars

Jaren Hall, BYU

18. BYU Cougars

Even facing down a tricky schedule, an explosive offense will keep BYU in the hunt for another double-digit win season

2021 Review
Following the departure of No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson and several other key contributors from the 2020 team, conventional wisdom was that BYU would take a significant step back in 2021. However, the Cougars proved conventional wisdom wasn't a reality, opening the season with three straight wins over Pac-12 foes, including arch-rival Utah. After a two-game skid in early October to Boise State and on the road against Baylor, BYU went on another impressive streak, winning their next five games to finish the regular season at 10-2. An upset loss in the Independence Bowl against UAB was a disappointing way to cap off the year, but there's no denying how successful 2021 was in Provo. The Cougars not only won ten games and beat their fiercest rival, they went 5-0 against the Pac-12 and 6-1 against Power Five schools. It's become clear that, despite the fact BYU is not yet a Power Five school, this is not your typical Group of Five program. They're loaded with NFL talent on both sides of the ball, with the right head man, Kalani Sitake, leading the charge.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Losing offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes prior to 2021 stung, but Aaron Roderick proved to be more than capable running the offense last year. The Cougars finished Top 40 in every important offensive category and averaged over 452 yards per game, which was 17th nationally.

Roderick will have his quarterback back to once again run the show in fifth-year junior Jaren Hall, who emerged out of a crowded QB room last fall. Hall may not have Zach Wilson's natural arm talent, but he's an ideal fit for this offense as a strong, accurate passer who takes care of the ball and can add something with his legs. After notching 2,583 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, even greater things are expected of the veteran signal-caller.

It's not unreasonable to think Hall will have to play an outsized role in this offense after tailback Tyler Allgeier moved on. With all due respect to Hall, Allgeier was really the heart-and-soul of this offense, setting a BYU single-season record with 1,601 yards rushing. Simply put, BYU is not a program that is going to replace that production in a single offseason, although a committee approach in the backfield may offer them more balance.

Senior Lopini Katoa is likely to begin the fall as the feature back in this offense, but Cal transfer Christopher Brooks should also be heavily involved. Brooks has proven to be a rock-solid running back, rushing for 914 yards in 2019 and 607 a season ago. He won't break the game open with his speed, but is a patient, hard-nosed runner who has proven he can handle a load. Katoa has a bit more shiftiness and elusiveness to his game, providing the Cougars a nice 1-2 punch.

This is a strong group of receivers that should help create a dynamic aerial attack. Former Washington transfer Puka Nacua is the top returnee after leading the team in receiving yards in 2021. He's proven to be an extremely tough cover even for experienced defensive backs and is the type of game-changer that every offense needs. He's joined by senior Gunner Romney, who isn't quite as explosive, but is incredibly reliable. Those two provide Hall more than enough playmaking ability on the perimeter, but it will be interesting to see who emerges as the No. 3 guy. Chase Roberts and Kody Epps are two youngsters who have caught eyes throughout the spring and into the fall, but sophomore Keanu Hill may be the best bet.

Sophomore tight end Isaac Rex could be an underrated element of this offense. He took advantage of having Wilson as his QB in 2020, with 429 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first full season seeing the field. His numbers decreased last year and an ankle injury cost him the final month-and-a-half of the season. It sounds like he is progressing well and should be good to go for the 2022 opener at South Florida, giving BYU a potential John Mackey Award candidate.

Up front, the offensive line is going to be very good. Three starters are back along the unit, including proven juniors Blake Freeland and Clark Barrington, with sophomore Connor Pay set up to start at center. There's a bunch of depth and plenty of returnees who could see larger roles, but don't be surprised if a newcomer quickly asserts himself as one of the team's best blockers. Tackle Kingsley Suamataia was a five-star prospect out of the state of Utah who enrolled at Oregon but entered the portal mid-season. He's returned to his home state and despite a lack of experience, has a pedigree not a lot of BYU offensive linemen can claim. He's a good bet to handle right tackle duties this fall.

Even with Allgeier moving on, there's a bunch to like about this BYU offense. They have a quality quarterback running the show, two solid backs helping out, playmaking at receiver, and a deep and experienced offensive line. It may not be an offense quite able to reach 2020 levels, but this is a Top 25 unit in my eyes.

Defense: BYU was an average defensive team across the board in 2021, so there's room for improvement as they look ahead towards the fall. Fortunately, there is plenty of talent returning and the Cougars should also be much healthier after an injury-plagued campaign.

The defensive line isn't loaded with star power, but there's plenty of experience and depth. Sophomore defensive end Tyler Batty is one of the most significant contributors on the defense after leading BYU in sacks last fall. He'll be flanked on the opposite side by junior Gabe Summers, a solid, hard-nosed disruptor off the edge. The interior D-Line will have to play better, but they have two capable defenders in Caden Haws and Earl Tuioti-Mariner. Haws in particular could be in store for greater things in 2022 after notching 31 tackles a season ago.

Linebacker could be the strength of the defense, good reason to believe BYU will improve at containing the run after ranking 71st in the nation in 2021. Sophomore outside 'backer Ben Bywater led the team in tackles last season with 102 and returns to lead the unit. He's a constant presence in opposing backfields and the Cougars love to unleash him on crucial downs; he also led the team with 8.5 tackles for loss. A trio of juniors will help out Bywater at linebacker in Keenan Pili, Payton Wilgar, and Max Tooley. Pili and Wilgar were lost to injury in 2021 but both are expected to recover and play a crucial role on this defense, while Tooley took advantage of an increase in playing time and finished just behind Bywater in tackles. Not only does this group have a lot of experience, they play with a real edge, a real embodiment of the BYU program culture.

There's plenty to like about the defensive backfield, with senior corners D'Angelo Mendall and Kaleb Hayes leading the way. Don't expect either to pick off very many passes, but they're reliable pass defenders who find a way to get in passing lanes; Hayes had 11 pass deflections last fall. Add in Vanderbilt transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally, who played in 23 games during his time in Nashville, and the corner spot should in very good hands.

Safety is a bit more of a mixed bag than the positives at corner. Senior free safety Malik Moore is one of the top players on this defense; he can not only add a lot in run support, but he tied for the team lead with three interceptions in 2021. Strong safety is the most significant question on the defense, with sophomore Ammon Hannemann and converted corner Micah Harper vying for snaps. Hannemann played plenty in 2021 and proved to be a versatile defender, but Harper has the higher ceiling.

Considering the injuries and adversity this defense faced a year ago, their statistical numbers are nothing to scoff at. They have a very good chance to be much improved this season if they can stay healthy and could be a real pain to prepare against. With all due respect to this offense, improvements defensively is why I rank BYU a Top 20 team this year.

Special Teams: Special teams is a real strength, as BYU may boast one of the country's top kicker-punter combinations. Junior Jake Oldroyd is back for his third season as starter after going 9-13 on field goals in 2021, while punter Ryan Rehkow is an All-American candidate; he averaged nearly 49 yards per punt. There's plenty to like in the return game, too, with all the top weapons from a year ago back in the fold.

Bottom Line: BYU will be a Power Five program soon enough, but the Cougars already have the talent, depth, and toughness of a P5 school. Head coach Kalani Sitake had some early difficulties taking over for Bronco Mendenhall in Provo, but he has done an excellent job building the program and handling all the unique challenges of modern college football as an Independent. This 2022 edition has a chance to be the best team he's had since taking over as head man, although the schedule may be the most difficult he's faced. The Cougars get Baylor and a road tilt with Oregon within the first month, then face a schedule that includes Notre Dame (in Las Vegas), Arkansas, and road games with Boise State and Stanford. Simply put, reach the 10-win plateau this fall will be extra difficult, but the experience and depth on both sides of the ball should hold up well throughout the tough stretches. If they can avoid the injury bug this fall, a double-digit win season is not just a possibility, but a likely outcome.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Kalani Sitake enters his sixth season at the helm in Provo and has emerged as a potential candidate for several Power Five gigs. Prior to taking over at his alma mater, Sitake was defensive coordinator at Oregon State and spent a lot of time on staff at Utah. He understands this program and geography very well, an excellent hire by the BYU brass. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick spent years with Sitake on staff at Utah before joining the Cougars, also his alma mater, in 2017. He was pass-game coordinator and QB coach for Zach Wilson in 2020 before earning a promotion to OC when Jeff Grimes took the same position at Baylor. Ilaisa Tuiaki has been the defensive coordinator since 2016 and has established a consistently strong defense. He's spent a bunch of time in the state, both as a high school coach and as a college coach, with a one-year stint at Oregon State being his only experience outside the state of Utah since he began his coaching career in 2006.

Recruiting Breakdown
With strict admission standards, BYU is never going to be a program that recruits at a particularly elite level. With that being said, they do a great job identifying the right cultural and scheme fits for their program and develop them the right way. They finished with the 55th ranked group in the 247Sports composite, fueled by a pair of four-stars, defensive linemen Aisea Moa and wide out Cody Hagen. A pair of twins, Dominique and Marcus McKenzie, further bolster this group. Dominique is the higher-ranked prospect who will play receiver at the collegiate level, but Marcus' future is a bit uncertain. He was a track standout listed as an "Athlete" who could help on either side of the ball, giving the Cougars something to work with moving forward. Another name to watch is junior college transfer Lisala Tai, who comes from Snow College, a school that has produced a bunch of quality college talent. The fifth-ranked offensive tackle coming from the JUCO ranks, he could see playing time in 2022.

2022 X-Factor: Christopher Brooks, RB
The fact of the matter is, BYU is not going to get the same type of production on the ground this season. Tyler Allgeier is the type of back that doesn't come around too often and he turned it up another gear during the 2021 campaign. However, the Cougars still need some production from the ground game and Cal transfer Christopher Brooks brings a proven pedigree to the equation. He's not the fastest or most powerful, but Brooks is an intelligent, patient runner with some nice burst in the open field. If he can acclimate quickly, BYU's offense should be able to maintain balance and once again be a productive group.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-3
Offensive MVP: WR Puka Nacua
Defensive MVP: LB Ben Bywater
Breakout Player of the Year: OT Kingsley Suamataia
Impact Freshman: OT Lisala Tai (JUCO)

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