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After a lost 2017, can Kalani Sitake make BYU *BYU* again?

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The Cougars lost their identity and collapsed to 4-9 last year. Can Sitake’s attempted culture change take root?

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NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Fresno State Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

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When LaVell Edwards took over the program in 1972, he decided to get weird.

The man with Utah State and Utah degrees and a decade’s worth of experience as a BYU assistant (under first Hal Mitchell, then Tommy Hudspeth), had helped the Cougars pull off a few decent seasons, but he knew maintaining was difficult. Their average S&P+ ranking in the 1950s was 93; it was 77 in the 1960s.

Edwards crafted an identity through the passing game. From a chapter he wrote in the AFCA’s Football Coaching Bible:

I was appointed the head coach. How or why I got the job is still one of the great mysteries of the profession. In 18 years of coaching (8 in high school, 10 at BYU) I had been associated with only four winning seasons. In 47 years of football BYU had averaged a little over three victories per year, had won one conference championship, and had never been to a bowl game.

In a situation like that, you have to think outside of the box a little and be more creative than usual. My concern was not whether I would be fired, but when. That had been the pattern for many years. I figured that because I probably wasn’t going to make it anyway, I might as well try something radically different. I decided to throw the football, not just the normal 10 or 15 times a game, but 35 to 45 times per game, on any down, from our own end zone to the opponent’s end zone. [...]

Ironically, in that first season we had a running back, Pete Van Valkenburg, who led the nation in rushing. Picked to finish last in the conference, we tied for second place. The second year we started our passing game with a quarterback named Gary Sheide and had our only losing season. In light of the success we had in that first year, it would have been easy to abandon the pass and stay conventional. The third year we started out 0-3-1. We then won seven straight and never looked back.

Over the next decade or so came constant program firsts. The Cougars reached their first bowl in 1974, won nine games for the first time in 1976, finished ranked for the first time in 1977, scored their first bowl win in 1980, finished in the top 10 for the first time in 1983, and won one of the most unlikely national titles ever in 1984. Six years later, quarterback Ty Detmer won the program’s first Heisman.

In the 28 seasons from 1973 to Edwards’ retirement in 2000, BYU ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50 all but three years and ranked in the top 20 sixteen times. Despite recruiting limitations, and despite living in the WAC and Mountain West, BYU became known for not only winning, but winning with a terrifying offense.

Despite a bit of an identity shift — Bronco Mendenhall’s 2005-15 tenure was just as likely to produce good defense — the passing prowess was never far in the rearview. John Beck threw for more than 10,000 yards from 2004-06, Max Hall threw for more than 11,000 from 2007-09, and even in Mendenhall’s final season, Tanner Mangum threw for nearly 3,400.

That made 2017, the first season after Edwards passed away, all the more jarring. With Detmer serving as coordinator for second-year head coach Kalani Sitake, BYU forgot how to pass.

Throwing to an almost completely new receiving corps, Mangum threw for just 1,540 yards. Mangum ruptured his Achilles in early November, and backups Joe Critchlow, Beau Hoge, and Koy Detmer Jr., combined to complete 51 percent of their passes at just 5.2 yards per attempt (including sacks). BYU finished the year 106th in Passing S&P+ and 121st overall in Off. S&P+.

And that was with some late-season improvement.

  • BYU, first 8 games (1-7): 4.6 yards per play | 12.1 points per game | 24% average percentile performance | 100.7 passer rating
  • BYU, last 5 games (3-2): 5.9 yards per play | 25.0 points per game | 52% average percentile performance | 114.9 passer rating

The run game was the primary source of late improvement, though the passing game did tick up a bit, too. Regardless, BYU finished with a triple-digit Off. S&P+ ranking for the first time since 1970, the second-to-last year before Edwards. The Cougars also won four or fewer games for just the second time since 1970.

Gary Crowton also went 4-8 in 2003, his third season in succeeding Edwards. He would get one more year but went 5-6, setting the table for Mendenhall. Despite a 9-4 debut in 2016, one assumes Sitake is feeling the heat.

Needless to say, Detmer is no longer the OC. Sitake brought in Jeff Grimes, the line coach from the John Beck days, to bring back some semblance of competence.

Offense

2017 BYU offensive radar

BYU had no idea what it was good at or what it wanted to do, and it was evident from the first snap in an ugly 20-6 win over a Portland State that would finish 0-11.

Perhaps the word most prevalent in spring football reports in the local media was “crisp.” (I also saw the word “multiple” quite a bit, but I’ll ignore that because every new offensive coordinator uses that word.) The goal for 2018 is simply a sense that BYU knows what it wants to be and has some idea how to execute it.

Grimes’ résumé is a unique one. He was tied mostly to fun passing attacks for the first few years of his full-time coaching career — he worked for Dirk Koetter at Boise State and ASU, then crafted the line that protected Beck in Provo.

By 2009, however, his influences had shifted. He was with Gene Chizik at Auburn during the Gus Malzahn/Cam Newton renaissance, and he was at LSU for the last four seasons, coaching for an offense that had almost all of its brightest moments leaning on a power running game.

Grimes’ line might not be too bad. Three starters are gone, but Notre Dame transfer and former blue-chipper Tristen Hoge joins guard Thomas Shoaf and tackle Austin Hoyt, and with 10 former three- and four-star recruits, the OL appears to have a solid reservoir of talent.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Hawaii
Squally Canada
Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, there’s enough of both quantity and quality to create massive competition in each unit.

  • At QB, Mangum should return in time to attempt to take his job back, but Critchlow had a nice spring, and mid-three-star freshman Zach Wilson got quite a few reps in the spring. Hoge isn’t out of the race yet, either.
  • At RB, senior Canada returns after providing maybe the only offensive bright spot. He was the main reason for BYU’s late-year improvement, averaging 115 yards per game and 7.1 yards per carry over the final four games. But he was getting pushed this spring by redshirt freshman Zach Katoa, who has built quite a bit of buzz. Juniors KJ Hall (6.9 yards per carry) and Riley Burt (4.5) should be able to contribute something, too.
  • At WR, four of last year’s top six are back, all of whom were either freshmen or sophomores. Aleva Hifo and Micah Simon flashed some big-play potential when not catching pointless three-yard passes. They’ll be joined by Hawaii grad transfer Dylan Collie (who posted better efficiency numbers than any of BYU’s 2017 WRs) and the jewel of the 2018 recruiting class, high-three-star freshman Gunner Romney.
  • At TE, Matt Bushman was thrust into a go-to role as a freshman and produced decent efficiency numbers (and no big-play threat). He’ll be joined by junior Moroni Laulu-Pututau, who was expected to make a star turn in 2017 before missing the entire year with a foot injury.

There’s just enough new coaching (from both Grimes and new OL coach Ryan Pugh), and there’s just enough experience and new talent to suggest offensive turnaround is possible.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at East Carolina
Micah Simon
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 BYU defensive radar

The defense was very much not the problem last year, but it still slumped. After ranking 31st and 29th, respectively, in Def. S&P+ in 2015 and 2016, the Cougars fell to 45th, their second-worst ranking of the last nine years.

A rebuilt front failed to generate disruption, which — along with “give up a touchdown, and we might be screwed” desperation — forced some bend-don’t-break conservatism.

With an offense that should at least improve to mediocre, DC Isaisa Tuiaki might be able to take a few more chances. And with five of last year’s top six havoc guys back, those risks might be rewarded.

NCAA Football: Portland State at Brigham Young
Sione Takitaki
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven should be a little more fun. The Cougars’ only two pass rushers — senior end Corbin Kaufusi (six sacks) and senior outside linebacker Sione Takitaki (five) — are both back, and the linebacking corps should boast a bit more speed thanks to middle linebacker Butch Pau’u returning to full strength after a series of nagging injuries last year, and thanks to senior safety Zayne Anderson moving to OLB to replace new San Francisco 49er Fred Warner.

At tackle, Tuiaki must replace last year’s top two tackles, but senior Merrill Taliauli is back, as is exciting sophomore Khyiris Tonga, who is listed at 332 pounds but managed to make four tackles for loss and bat down three passes as a backup.

Add in ends like junior Trajan Pili and four-star sophomore Langi Tuifua, plus two more Kaufusis — sophomore linebacker Isaiah (who had a nice spring) and incoming freshman end Devin — and this should feel a lot more like the type of BYU front seven we got used to.

With Anderson moving to LB, corner Dayan Ghanwoloku moves to safety, and he should form a nice duo with junior Troy Warner. But that leaves cornerback exposed a bit. Junior starter Chris Wilcox returns, but someone from a pool of senior Michael Shelton, junior Trevion Greene, or converted receiver Beau Tanner will need to raise their game quickly. You can’t make too many gambles in the front seven if you can’t trust your cornerbacks.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Brigham Young
Dayan Ghanwoloku
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Among all of BYU’s other problems in 2017, the special teams unit fell from 20th to 78th in S&P+. Punter Jonny Linehan was excellent, but the unit otherwise struggled, and now Linehan’s gone.

Place-kicker Rhett Almond has decent leg strength (2-for-4 on FGs longer than 40) but was scattershot inside of 40 yards, and the return game was a mess. The offense should improve, and the defense could, but it’s hard to be too optimistic about a special teams rebound.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Arizona 33 -11.3 26%
8-Sep California 65 0.0 50%
15-Sep at Wisconsin 12 -21.4 11%
22-Sep McNeese State NR 21.0 89%
29-Sep at Washington 4 -27.5 6%
5-Oct Utah State 77 2.5 56%
13-Oct Hawaii 122 15.6 82%
27-Oct Northern Illinois 69 1.4 53%
3-Nov at Boise State 26 -13.6 22%
10-Nov at Massachusetts 102 4.1 59%
17-Nov New Mexico State 100 9.1 70%
24-Nov at Utah 28 -13.0 23%
Projected S&P+ Rk 76
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 110 / 35
Projected wins 5.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.8 (39)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 72 / 68
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -10 / -4.8
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (87%, 76%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.3 (-1.3)

Last year’s collapse led to retooling, both on the offensive coaching staff and throughout the two-deep. That can be seen as either a healthy process or a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.

I lean former, but that might just be because I’m an optimist.

S&P+ doesn’t take coaching changes into account and therefore projects BYU to improve only a bit (from 121st to 110th in Off. S&P+), but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t bounce more into the No. 70 range. Combined with a top-40 defense, that should produce a team capable of bowling again.

The schedule could make that tricky, though. A conservative S&P+ projects three likely wins, four relative tossups, and five games in which the Cougars have a 26 percent win probability or worse (road games vs. Washington, Wisconsin, Boise State, Utah, and Arizona).

Granted, I expect slight overachievement compared to projections, but this does basically mean BYU will need to either score a road upset or win every winnable game to finish with a record we’re used to seeing from the Cougars.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.