Spring football, strange as that is to say in February with snow falling, is upon us. The BYU Cougars open spring camp Monday morning with their first of 15 practice sessions over the next five weeks. The Cougars enter 2017 with a second year coaching staff, a new (in a sense) quarterback at the helm and a few position groups that have lingering question marks. Spring practices are a time for installing base concepts for college programs so statistics, starting positions and other “news” that comes from the practices should be taken with a grain of salt. With that said, let’s talk BYU football and examine the position groups.
Quarterback controversy no more, Cougar fans. Tanner Mangum assumes the reigns of the BYU offense two years after he passed for 3,377 yards and 23 touchdowns in relief of Taysom Hill during the 2015 season. Mangum spent 2016 as Hill’s backup but did get the start in the Poinsettia Bowl after Hill was lost yet again to another season-ending injury. Mangum has a lot of expectations heaped on his shoulders and spring ball should be an opportunity to entrench himself as “QB1.”
Backing up Mangum this season with be a pair of redshirt sophomores in Beau Hoge and Koy Detmer Jr. Hoge has the size (6-1, 210-pounds) and athleticism while Detmer Jr. follows in his uncle, BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s footsteps when it comes to getting the job done on the field. Multiple reports over the last few seasons indicated that Detmer Jr. has a knack for moving the offense when he is on the field, whether it be with the scout team or with the first string. The thinking in spring ball is the depth chart will go Mangum, Hoge, then Detmer Jr. but expect to see both Hoge and Detmer Jr. get time in spring ball with the second string offense. Other quarterbacks expected to be on the roster include walk-ons Young Tanner (you read his name correctly) and Jeremiah Evans.
Jamaal Williams left a big hole in BYU’s offense after he rushed for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016. My thinking with the running backs in spring ball is that a number of players will get looks with the first team to give the coaching staff a look at what they have on the roster to replace Williams’ production.
Williams’ backup in 2016, Squally Canada, will more than likely the first guy to get looks with the first string in spring ball. Canada is a former four star prospect out of the Bay Area in California so BYU fans are hoping he can live up to his potential. K.J. Hall, who came on strong at the end of the 2016 season will get his fair share of looks as will former East High School star Ula Tolutau. Tolutau, who signed with Wisconsin before an LDS mission, is built in the mold of Harvey Unga, Manase Tonga, and Fui Vakapuna; big Polynesian backs who are bruisers on the field. Many fans are hoping the former Mr. Football can make an impact as a freshman for the Cougars.
Other players who are coming off of redshirt years and will garner looks in spring ball include Riley Burt and Trey Dye. Both players were on the scout team in 2016 thanks to a glut of running backs on the roster but should be eager to prove themselves on the field with the first team. Walk-on Colby Hansen will also take the field but will have a hard time cracking the rotation thanks to a full stable of backs on the roster. The fullback position appears to belong to Brayden El-Bakri after the graduation of Algernon Brown but keep an eye on Creed Richardson. El-Bakri showed potential as a run-blocker in 2016 and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield will serve him well in Ty Detmer’s offense.
The BYU wide receiving corps, more than any other position entering 2017, has the most question marks facing it. The coaching staff opted to not overreact and infuse the position group in recruiting with junior college prospects, instead opting to sign Keenan Ellis and Tariq Buchanan, both of whom will get looks on offense and defense when they arrive on campus this summer. After the graduation of Nick Kurtz, Colby Pearson, and the Juergens twins (Mitch and Garrett), along with the move by Moroni Laulu-Pututau to tight end, BYU fans are likely to be wondering who will fill the void at wide out.
The easiest answer comes in the form of Snow College transfer Jonah Trinnaman, who arrived at BYU last summer with a host of accolades. Trinnaman didn’t break out like many hoped he would in 2016, finishing the year with 28 receptions for 321 yards and just one touchdown. He will be looked to as the elder statesman in 2017 as the lone senior in the group to lead the position group and live up to his billing.
Sophomore Aleva Hifo will be expected to play a more significant role in 2017 after he saw a lot of action in 2016 as a true freshman. While he only had 11 receptions for 58 yards as a freshman, he is one of the few athletes in the position group who saw significant time last season. Another athlete who the coaches hope can rise to the occasion is Beau Tanner. The Arizona native opted to sign with BYU over Texas A&M following his mission and saw spot duty action in 2016 but will be given an opportunity to show what he can do during spring ball.
The remainder of the position group are light on on-field experience but they will be given their chance to shine in spring ball. Akile Davis has been moved around between defensive back and wide receiver during his time at BYU but it appears that after a redshirt season in 2016, the DeSoto, Texas product has a home at wide receiver. Reports from last year’s practices indicated that Davis was a handful for the BYU defense as a member of the scout team. His fellow Texan Micah Simon will also get his time on the field after redshirting in 2016. Simon is a converted high school quarterback and also had his moments on the scout team last year as well.
The remaining receivers on the roster include Mack Richards, Inoke Lotulelei, Rickey Shumway, Taggart Krueger and Talon Shumway. Both Shumways saw playing time in 2016 but it’s clear that there are no sure answers as to who will step up and produce at the position currently so any of these player has to believe they have an equal opportunity to earn the coaching staff’s trust. One other name who could factor in at receiver but likely could find his way to tight end is Neil Pau’u, the younger brother of BYU starting middle linebacker Butch Pau’u. Pau’u is an athlete who played football, basketball, and volleyball in high school.
The tight end position was one Ty Detmer and Kalani Sitake insisted they wanted to reintegrate into BYU’s offense and make it a prominent part of their attack. 2016 didn’t yield much in the way of results or make it appear that the position was on its way back to prominence. Maybe 2017 is when it will actually happen. The coaching staff recruited to the position and it appears there are a host of athletes who will attempt to make an impression at the position that are already on the roster. Top 2016 contributors Tanner Balderee and Hunter Marshall return at the position but will have to fend off numerous challengers for reps.
The aforementioned Moroni Laulu-Pututau will be a prominent name to keep an eye on as he makes a position change from wide receiver. He finished 2016 with 27 receptions for 277 yards and two touchdowns. Spring ball will be an important time for him to adjust to playing in a three point stance and working on his blocking technique.
Alema Pilimai was an athlete BYU signed in 2016 who could have played a few different positions but the coaching staff decided to give him a run at tight end and he showed signs of promise. He’ll be back in spring ball looking to further hone his skills. Nate Sampson, Kyle Griffitts and David Weekes were walk-ons in 2016 who will spend spring ball looking to get reps and assert themselves as guys the coaching staff may want to pay closer attention to.
BYU also has added two more bodies to the mix at tight end in Joe Tukuafu and Matt Bushman. Tukuafu signed with Utah State out of East High School but decided to attend BYU after his mission. Bushman is a two-sport star from Arizona who could also end up playing baseball for the Cougars. Tukuafu returned from his mission at 275-pounds so he’ll likely need to cut some weight while Bushman will be working his way back after a mission as well but spring ball reps would be beneficial for both players.
BYU’s offensive line has been in perpetual rebuild mode for the better part of a decade. Former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, either by design or omission, let the position group languish behind other position groups in terms of talent recruited and development in the program. He began to see the effects of it late in his time at BYU when teams with athletic defenses terrorized his offense because the line was unable to hold up. Mendenhall began to shift the focus to recruiting to the position group before departing to Virginia and Kalani Sitake renewed the emphasis of building the foundation of his team in the trenches. 2017 sees the deepest BYU offensive line assembled, both in numbers and talent, since John Beck was under center for the Cougars. Mike Empey’s job during spring ball will be finding the ten best linemen to fill out his two-deep.
At left tackle, BYU loses their lone full time starter from the 2016 season in Andrew Eide. To replace him BYU will give first look to his backup from last season, J.J. Nwigwe, and former four star prospect Kieffer Longson. Longson redshirted in 2016 but was quite possibly the best athlete on the scout team regardless of position according to reports out of practice. BYU also added their lone junior college transfer in the 2017 recruiting class to bolster the position when they brought in Taipe “John” Vaka from Diablo Valley College. Seeing as Vaka will not arrive until the summer, Nwigwe and Longson will get plenty of time to prove they are able to hold down the position.
Ului Lapuaho, when healthy, is one of BYU’s most imposing figures and he began the 2016 season at right tackle before a knee injury and subsequent surgery knocked him out for the season. He applied for a medical hardship and is likely to have the year of eligibility restored to him but he recently underwent another surgery and will likely miss spring camp. Lapuaho’s absence means that FWAA Freshman All-American Thomas Shoaf has the deck cleared for him to lock down right tackle as his home. Shoaf could be a player the Cougars give a look at left tackle but he looked very comfortable at right tackle in 2016 and with a full offseason to lift and prepare should be better in 2017. Austin Hoyt rotated with Shoaf in 2016 and should get looks at right tackle as well. He’s a long-levered athlete who will need to show he spent the offseason working hard in the weight room as that was his most glaring weakness in 2016.
Other prospects who will spend spring ball looking to work their way into the rotation will be Chandon Herring, Austin Chambers and Addison Pulsipher, athletes who returned from missions before the 2016 season and spent the last year getting back into football shape.
At guard BYU has two starters returning in Keyan Norman and Tuni Kanuch. Norman, a former graduate transfer from Southern Utah University, endured an up-and-down season in 2016 and will need to improve to hold onto his starting position in 2017. He will be challenged by his backup in 2016, Jacob Jimenez, who has been biding his time for a chance to play. Norman could also see reps at center this spring which could open the door for Jimenez to make a move up the depth chart.
Tuni Kanuch spent 2016 rotating with Parker Dawe at right guard but he spent the offseason trimming his weight from 340-pounds to 315-pounds and that should help the road-grading mauler stay on the field more in 2017. He will be pushed by LeRoy Tanoa’i-Sitake and Zac Dawe, younger brother of Parker, both of whom were on the scout team in 2016. Dawe in particular is intriguing as he is a former state champion wrestler form Pleasant Grove, Utah.
BYU’s center position is both it’s strongest and weakest position along the offensive line. Tejan Koroma enters his senior season in 2017 and his fourth season starting in the pivot should be at the height of his powers. Koroma remains one of, if not, the strongest players on the team and has been an ironman throughout his career. The issue entering 2017 is who will be Koroma’s backup after Quin Ficklin, who backed Koroma up in 2016, transferred to Utah State in search of more playing time. Keyan Norman, Jacob Jimenez, and Zac Dawe are guys who could see time at center during spring ball as Mike Empey searches for someone to who is able to step in and spell Koroma.
BYU’s defensive line should be in decent shape in 2017 but spring camp will go a long ways towards getting players in the right positions and building continuity. The Cougars said farewell to two stalwart defensive tackles in 2016 in Travis Tuiloma and Logan Taele. Tuiloma, when healthy, was far and away BYU’s best defensive lineman but injuries piled up throughout his career and his loss was felt. Taele was a former walk-on who worked himself into the rotation and was uber-reliable as he played through dual shoulder injuries during his junior and senior seasons. The good news for BYU in spring ball is the players behind Tuiloma and Taele got a lot of reps in 2016 and should be ahead of the curve.
Former Snow College transfer Handsome Tanielu enters his senior season and it would serve him well to have a stand-out spring camp as he seeks to make one of the tackle positions his this fall. Tanielu had moments of brilliance as a junior but it seemed his strength and conditioning limited him to rotational role. Another player who was reliable before being lost to a season-ending knee injury was Merrill “Meti” Taliauli. Taliauli is still rehabbing his knee injury and will likely miss most or all of spring camp.
Tevita Mounga played more and more throughout the 2016 season as injuries decimated BYU’s depth chart at defensive tackle. Mounga benefited as he progressed and got better each week during the season. Spring camp will be a good proving ground for him to show he’s continued to make progress in the offseason. Kesni Tausinga also played better as the 2016 campaign worse on and entering his senior season, he will want to show that he can be counted on and ensure he stays in the rotation in his final year of eligibility.
There are a few players on the roster who will be looking to show during spring ball they are worthy of a longer look from the coaching staff. Kainoa Fuiava was a late addition to BYU’s 2016 class and redshirted his first season on campus. At 6-5 and nearly 300-pounds, he’s got the measurables for a prototypical tackle but it remains to be seen if he’s still a season away from contributing. BYU brought on former BYU-Hawaii basketball player Solomone Wolfgramm last year and he started out at tight end before moving to the defensive line. He will need to show that he’s adjusting well during spring ball as will walk-on Kamalani Kaluhiokalani (who should be a candidate for any and all All-Name teams).
BYU added a high-profile transfer in Wayne Tei Kirby from Oregon this offseason but as of now it appears he will miss the 2017 season due to NCAA transfer rules. He has appealed for immediate eligibility but his case is still outstanding. Returned missionaries Teancum “Tico” Fuga and Earl Mariner are back on campus as well and will look to use spring camp to get their first reps as college football players and begin overcoming mission rust. Fuga has strong bloodlines as his older brother, Romney, was a stalwart for BYU’s defense from 2009-12. Mariner is the cousin of Travis Tuiloma so the hope is his family bloodlines will also allow him to produce as a Cougar
Defensive end was a position that lost two standout players in 2016 in Sae Tautu and Harvey Langi. Langi did transition to playing both at linebacker and running back late in the season but their production will need to be replaced. The good news is BYU showed there was depth at the position as the 2016 campaign played out.
Two players who began the season at end moved inside to tackle as injuries mounted were Tomasi Laulile and Moses Kaumatule. Both weighed in at over 280-pounds and they performed with mixed results when moved inside. Both players will be looking to reestablish themselves at end during spring ball but Laulile may miss spring camp. Kaumatule made multiple references to his needing to cut weight last season to remain at his preferred position of end and spring camp will reveal where he ends up playing.
Corbin Kaufusi was thought by many during last offseason to be a sideshow as he moved from playing for the BYU basketball team to playing football. Listed at 6-9 on BYU’s football roster (though he’s listed at 6-11 for basketball), many thought he was simply too tall to be an effective football player. His 2016 season silenced those doubters and many wonder if he’ll return to the BYU basketball team for his senior year of eligibility there after the 2017 football season ends. That question will remain unanswered until the fall but Kaufusi will miss the first few weeks of spring camp as he plays out the remainder of the basketball season with Dave Rose’s squad.
Trajan Pili saw his playing time increase as the 2016 season progressed and his play improved as his reps increased. He now has the benefit of a full offseason to prepare his body to contribute more in 2017. Spring camp will be an important time for him to show he’s continued to improve with offseason workouts. Uriah Leiataua will also be looking to make an impression in fall camp as he redshirted his first season back home from a mission. He’s got prototypical size and was highly-sought after in high school so spring camp will be his time to show he still has those skills he showed in high school.
BYU added a second transfer to the defensive end position as A.J. Lolohea opted to attend BYU after he signed with Weber State in high school before going on a mission. Lolohea will look to knock off the mission rust during spring camp and work on his body and skills as he begins his collegiate career. Sione Takitaki is another name who BYU fan have hoped to see return to the football program but he is set to miss spring camp as he continues to work his way back to playing football. Takitaki has a unique skill-set for rushing the passer and his return would be readily-welcomed but it looks like it’ll be the summer or fall camp before he rejoins the team.
BYU returns their starting trio of linebackers in 2017 and that’s a positive sign for the Cougars as the triumvirate of Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard combined to tally 249 total tackles, 23 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, five sacks, four forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery in 2016. All three will be expected to retain their starting positions and the bulk of spring camp likely will be devoted to building depth behind them at each position.
Warner is a guy who looks the part of an NFL prospect and his senior season in 2017 should be the time he puts his best foot forward and shows he’s ready to move to the next level. Behind Warner in 2016, BYU put former walk-on safeties Grant Jones and Morgan Unga wiht varying amounts of success and failure. Both will be back to show they learned from their 2016 reps and that they can be trusted with a bigger workload.
Scott Huntsman, another walk-on who’s been beset with injuries since his freshman season, seems like a likely contender for the spot but it’ll depend on if he can stay healthy enough to contribute. Warner, Jones, Unga and Huntsman all stand 6-4 or taller which gives a indication of what Ilaisa Tuiaki is looking for at the position. It will be interesting to see how the depth chart battle plays out and if there’s another player on the roster who is able to earn playing time at the position.
Butch Pau’u started 2016 with a bang before injuring his knee and even when he returned, he wasn’t the same player as when the season started. He’s had time to get healthy but it will be interesting to see how much time he’s given this spring as he’s a proven commodity and the coaching staff want to keep him healthy. Austin Heder graduated in 2016 so the backup position falls to Adam Pulsipher, who also saw reps in Pau’u’s absence in 2016. Pulsipher had both brilliant and abysmal moments as a sophomore but should be able to show he’s improved during spring camp.
Other players who will look to prove their ability in spring camp include Philip Amone, and Johnny Tapusoa. Amone has had his own injury concerns and his status for spring camp remains uncertain. He has shown his ability when fit to be a talented player but must show he can remain on the field. Tapusoa who also goes by “Ku-J” is undersized at 5-10 but the former Kahuku Red Raider played well in limited reps in 2016.
Kavika Fonua spent time behind Francis Bernard in 2016 but could see some time at middle linebacker in 2017. He was originally recruited to play defensive back in Bronco Mendenhall’s defense so his speed has been an asset for him as a linebacker. Both Tapusoa and Fonua will want to capitalize on their chances in spring camp to make an impression. Va’a Niumatalolo, son of Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, enters his senior season and will want to assert himself as a rotational player in his final go-round as a collegiate player. Niumatalolo has the benefit of a lot of seasoning and will need to use it to his advantage this spring.
Two other players who will want to show the coaching staff what they can do in spring camp will be Rhett Sandlin and Rylee Gautavai. Both players have been lost in the shuffle and dealt with injury concerns but spring camp and clean bill of health would be positives as they seek to earn playing time.
Francis Bernard made a position change in 2016 and did so with fantastic results. The converted running back looked right at home as a linebacker and may have found his calling card to playing on Sundays. Behind Bernard will be the aforementioned Fonua, who performed well in a reserve role in 2016 and Huntsman, who will be looking to prove his ability regardless of position.
Keenan Pili and Isaiah Kaufusi spent the 2016 season redshirting after returning from missions. Both are Utah high school products and appear to be built in the mold of Bernard so they will look to make their imprint during spring ball. They won’t be limited to playing just the weak side linebacker position as spring ball is the time for coaches to try players out at different positions but they will be looking to show they have overcome their mission legs and are ready to play ball.
BYU entered 2016 with a number of question marks at cornerback but exited the season with a young core of talented contributors who look like they can be a backbone for BYU’s pass defense over the next couple of seasons. BYU said farewell to Michael Davis in 2016 but Troy Warner, Dayan Lake, and Michael Shelton supplanted him as the season played out and will be set to prowl the BYU secondary in 2017. Spring ball is going to be a time for all three to continue to improve and assert themselves.
Chris Wilcox is another exciting young prospect who was roughed up in 2016 but will be better for it. A spring camp to continue to show he has learned from the lessons taught to him during his freshman season could prove that he’s the the fourth player in the rotation. Austin McChesney was a surprise contributor in 2016 before he was lost to a knee injury. Seeing as he likely will miss spring ball, he will need to make up for lost time and reenter the conversation during the summer and fall camp.
There are plenty of other players who will want to work their name into the mix in spring ball. 2016 JUCO transfer Isaiah Armstrong will be looking to use spring camp to springboard himself into the mix. He was a late addition to BYU’s 2016 class and the coaches hope he can make an impact but there’s a chance he could end up transitioning to safety. Trevor Brent has been on campus for two seasons and will need to show he’s ready to prove himself at a position that is suddenly quite deep. Kamel Greene has found himself relegated to mostly special teams play during his time at BYU but will look to use spring camp to get himself into the mix for playing time.
A few other names who will be look to impress but face long odds will be Caden Dortch, Hiva Lee and Gavin Fowler.
BYU said farewell to Kai Nacua in 2016 and his loss will be felt as he had a knack for coming up with game-changing plays, particularly interceptions, when the Cougars needed them most. BYU teamed him with converted cornerback Micah Hannemann and the duo was impressive. BYU safeties coach Ed Lamb employed a rotation last year and Eric Takenaka saw plenty of time in but has since graduated. His backfield running mate, Matt Hadley, would be the likely player to team up with Hannemann in 2017 but he could also be auditioning to play running back (hat tip to Jay Drew for the news on that). It will be worth watching in spring to see what happens with the safety position beside Hannemann and who the backups are.
Tanner Jacobson, who was a freshman sensation at Texas Tech before going on a mission, should be ready to give his best effort to prove he’s back in playing shape and over some injury concerns that have limited him. He’s proven he can play at a high level and this spring camp would be a good time to show he’s ready to do it again. Zayne Anderson saw a lot of time on special team in 2016 and he stands now with a chance to show he can play ball and earn playing time in 2017. Anderson is a smart athlete who should be a contender during spring ball.
Other players who will be looking to use spring camp to show Ed Lamb they are worthy to enter the discussion for playing time include Riggs Powell, Sawyer Powell and Cody Stewart. Sam Baldwin would also likely be in the mix to impress but he is rehabilitating a knee injury and he’ll be limited in spring camp at the very least.
Spring camp may be the least advantageous for the specialist positions. BYU has good news in that all of their specialists return for 2017 but there’s always a chance a player could use the limited reps to impress and earn a longer look come fall camp.
Jonny Linehan was thought to be graduating in 2016 but surprised everyone when he announced that he had another year of eligibility and will be back to reprise his role in 2017. Another year of seasoning could be beneficial as Linehan continues to improve but BYU needs to find a backup to develop for the future behind Linehan this year. Placekicker Rhett Almond had been Linehan’s backup and he’s likely to be the backup until another punter is added to the roster and is able to prove themselves.
Jake Oldroyd was a sensation when he made the game-winning field goal against Arizona to begin the 2016 season but back injuries ended his season early and he is headed on a mission which leaves Rhett Almond as the incumbent for BYU in 2017. Almond endured a rocky start to 2016 but ended the season well and will be looking to extend his range and reliability beyond 45 yards.
BYU has a couple of kickers who are thought to have stronger legs than Almond in Andrew Mikkelsen and Corey Edwards but both will need to prove their reliability and accuracy to supplant Almond at kicker and not just be kickoff specialists. Spring and the reps therein will be critical as BYU looks to extend their effective field goal range beyond 40-45 yards.
Deep snappers toil in anonymity and they’re happy to remain that way. Matt Foley has been a rock for BYU over the past two season and enters his junior season in 2017 looking to continue his steady play. He will be backed up by Mitch Harris as Britton Hogan, who was on the roster in 2016 is expected be headed on a mission.
Will every player I have written about here remain at the positions they are currently listed at? Certainly not as BYU’s staff under Kalani Sitake is always looking to put players in positions to succeed and spring ball is the perfect time to let guys try new positions and see how they perform. There will be plenty of story lines that emerge from spring ball that will carry on until fall camp and generate plenty of discussion for fans but that’s the fun of spring ball. Enjoy it, folks.