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Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitaki sings the fight song after beating the McNeese State Cowboys in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. BYU won 30-3. (Jeff Allred, Deseret News)
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BYU Football In 2019 Boasts Deepest Independence Era Roster

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitaki sings the fight song after beating the McNeese State Cowboys in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. BYU won 30-3. (Jeff Allred, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – 5:28 remaining in the third quarter with a 27-7 lead, BYU was knocking on the door of ending the seven-game losing streak to their archrival, the Utah Utes.

Those last 20-plus minutes were going to be a test of depth and strength in the BYU football roster if they wanted to come away with a victory.  And as we know, the Cougars ultimately failed that difficult test.

Linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi went down with a leg injury and former linebacker then converted running back Matt Hadley also had to leave the game early.  Those injuries paired with defensive end Corbin Kaufusi putting his career on the line by delaying surgeries to play in the rivalry game one more time led to the eighth straight loss to their rival.

It was a bitter moment for BYU. A program that at that moment had made many strides from the disaster that was 4-9 in 2017.  But on that cold night in late November, Kalani Sitake and his program realized more work had to be done to not only beat the Utes but to be the great program they strive to become.

Building Depth

When Sitake took over in 2016, one of the tasks he set out to accomplish was building depth. BYU has consistently had 45 to 55 scholarship players that could play on many college football programs around the country.  The challenge was enhancing the talent pool in the last 30 scholarship players, and having a deep walk-on pool of players that look and perform like they should be scholarship athletes.

Look at this past NFL Draft class the Cougars produced.  Only one draft pick (Sione Takitaki) and one undrafted free agent (Corbin Kaufusi) came out of BYU.  Is it that shocking to think just two years ago BYU went 4-9 when there was only a handful of upperclassmen that were NFL talents?  Pair that lack of NFL bodies with 85-percent of Sitake’s recruiting classes to that point hadn’t enrolled in school yet, Cougar fans should have seen 4-9 coming from a mile away.

Now in 2019, there’s a renewed sense of optimism. Why? Simply put, this 2019 football roster is the deepest BYU has been in the independence era. 

It’s taken a while for Sitake to get his players into the program, but now the roster is taking the shape of what Sitake had envisioned when he took the head coaching position in December 2015. Humongous linemen in the trenches, physical running backs, dynamic quarterbacks, rangy defensive backs with speed and linebackers who can drop back into coverage but also are physical enough to get up in the box and play at the line of scrimmage.

When Sitake first started at BYU in 2016, the offensive line had only six healthy players to go through drills in spring practices.  Fast forward to this season, the Cougars might have 10 offensive linemen that they feel could play in a game. Same with the defensive line as the Cougars have evolved into a 4-3 base defense.  The resources allocated to that position group have garnered great returns as Khyiris Tonga looks to be a future NFL draft pick and guys like Lorenzo Fauatea and Zac Dawe are ready to emerge and potentially make BYU’s defense a top 25 group statistically again for the third time in four years.

Turning Over Every Stone To Fill The Gaps

Heading into spring football this past March, one of the biggest storylines was the running back position group.  The staff missed out on recruits such as Aidan Robbins, DeShawn Collins, and Thomas Grayson during the 2019 recruiting cycle. So there were doubts as to how they would fill out the running back room, and add talent that would bring competitive depth to the program.

 The staff was fortunate that Kavika Fonua was able to return and get reps for spring ball, but then they were able to get creative with the advent of the NCAA’s new Transfer Portal. Running Backs coach A.J. Steward hit the pavement and worked towards getting graduate transfers into the program.  He did just that landing both Rice transfer Emmanuel “Sup” Esukpa and South Carolina’s Ty’Son Williams. Two players that will be factoring into BYU’s carries distribution out of the backfield this fall.

Now with those additions and the effort of turning over every recruiting stone that might be a fit at BYU, the Cougar running back position looks to be a spot that could be promising and an asset to quarterback Zach Wilson, rather than a liability.

That’s happening around the BYU football program right now. The staff is adding personnel that they feel will be valuable additions to the football field but also quality student-athletes that will be able to navigate the rigors of the BYU classrooms. That attitude of always recruiting is creating a competitive environment in practices and the deepest roster the Cougars have had in the independence era.  If there is a “BYU guy” out there, this coaching staff is making sure to turn over that stone on the recruiting trail to see if they can get them.

What does it mean going forward?

With a deeper roster than previous years, BYU’s coaching staff will have the challenge of maximizing the talent and abilities of the players in the program.  Far too often at BYU the past two decades, there have been players that showed flashes of brilliance early in their career, but they never progressed and got better in Provo.

Competing for your job every practice and every single day will continue to maximize the talent of these student-athletes. Usually, that’s just coach speak.  But under Sitake, there’s proof in that statement.

Sitake and his staff have made changes mid-season if reserves are outperforming starters. Look at current NFL player Michael Davis getting benched in 2016.  Kieffer Longson stepping in for Keanu Saleapaga along the offensive line in the latter portion of last season. That culture of always competing for your job is allowing for BYU’s depth to bloom and now it needs to result in wins against rivals and Power Five programs on a more consistent basis.

But because of the improved depth, Cougar fans can expect their squad to be a lot more competitive in those matchups this fall and that should result in more wins in 2019.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday’s from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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