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Kalani Sitake Has His Best BYU Football Team Yet; Here’s How It Happened

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates on sideline against Navy on September 7th, 2020. (BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

PROVO, Utah – BYU football is rolling to one of its best starts in years. Kalani Sitake’s fifth squad boasts a 4-0 record and is in the top 10 nationally for both offense and defense right now. Pro Football Focus has this BYU team as the No. 1 team in the country based on their team grades through four weeks.

It’s a big turn from the past four seasons under Sitake that saw a mixed bag of results and a record barely hovering over .500.

How did this evolution from an average team to one that is undefeated, nationally-ranked, and has the potential to lead BYU football to heights they haven’t reached in decades?

Here are five reasons for how the 2020 edition of BYU became Kalani Sitake’s best team.

Patience

After a 7-6 season that easily could have produced nine or ten wins, Sitake stayed patient with his staff and didn’t make changes. BYU AD Tom Holmoe gave Kalani Sitake a contract extension despite Sitake having a record that hovered around .500 through the first four years.

Accumulating talent and building a roster takes time at BYU, and it takes patience. There were many opportunities for Sitake or Holmoe to take a different path and make wholesale changes. But they didn’t, and now it’s being rewarded with the best start from a BYU football team in nearly two decades.

BYU today is different than the one Kalani Sitake played for in the late 90s and early 2000s. It took time to navigate and learn the challenges that come with BYU as an Independent today. Now those lessons have been learned, and the experience of facing those challenges shows in the way BYU is playing today.

Continuity on the BYU Football Coaching Staff 

Everyone on BYU’s coaching staff has been part of the program for at least three years, including first-year running back coach Harvey Unga who was a grad assistant the previous three years. Having continuity and experience on the coaching staff has led to chemistry and strengthened relationships within the program.

During the off-season, Zach Wilson was able to text Jeff Grimes or Aaron Roderick about a certain play call or something he saw on film. Does that happen with a coaching change? BYU is a challenging place, and it is even more difficult when you have a staff that is roles for the first time in their careers.

Star Quarterback

The best BYU teams of the past have always had excellent quarterback play. They’ve got that in Zach Wilson in 2020.

BYU coaches said that a quarterback competition was taking place, but everyone knew Wilson was the man for the job. He’s showing you now why he was always the man for the job with the efficient level of play he’s displaying.

At a school known for great quarterback play, Wilson is delivering on those lofty expectations he received when he was a freshman where former wide receiver Dylan Collie said Wilson could be an all-time great at BYU.

Wilson is in the top five nationally for completion percentage (No. 1 – 81.2%), yards per attempt (No. 2, 12.29), points responsible for (No. 3, 84), passing efficiency (No. 3, 208.6), passing yards (No. 4, 1241), and rushing TDs (No. 5, 6).

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Wilson has put in the work to be at the top of his game. He added weight and is in command of an offense that is the best BYU has had since the days of Max Hall in 2009. Now he is emerging as one of the top quarterback prospects for the NFL Draft in the class of 2021.

Competitive Depth

Building the depth was a top priority in Kalani Sitake’s program when he took over as head coach in December 2015. It’s taken a while for him and his staff’s personnel to matriculate into BYU with missions, injuries, etc. But now it’s led to a deep team that has competitive depth across the board.

For years, BYU has been known to have a solid starting unit on both offense and defense. But it was the second and third units that took a dip, especially when facing Power 5 competition. Now BYU boasts starting experience in their second and even third units.

The depth was a byproduct of a commitment to start young players after stars such as Taysom Hill, Jamaal Williams, and Kai Nacua graduated. An investment into young players began in 2017, and there were difficult growing pains that included losses to UMass, Northern Illinois, Toledo, and USF. But now BYU is being rewarded handsomely with a roster that features seasoned and confident veterans paired with young newcomers ready to push for playing time.

2020 was the team that Sitake and his staff were always building towards, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and completely altered the schedule. These were the players that the coaches recruited and now they are experiencing the payoff, but they have a long ways to go to turn this from Sitake’s best team to one of BYU’s best teams ever.

Family Atmosphere

Anytime you see Kalani Sitake leave the podium of a press conference, he interacts with one of his players. You’ll usually hear a “love you, bro,” during the interaction. You do not hear that often in major college football between a head coach and his player. The love and family atmosphere that Sitake has implemented in his program is probably the biggest reason for many of the above reasons for success.

In an era where college athletes have the autonomy to leave whenever they please in the Transfer Portal, BYU players are staying put largely because of the family culture Sitake has built during his time as head coach.

The close-knit family approach has empowered players to take ownership of the team; something Sitake has wanted to see since he lost Hill, Nacua, and Williams.

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Now with his best team, to date, the challenge now is delivering that special season that BYU has been craving for years. For a man that great up a BYU fan, he has a huge opportunity on Friday night to continue on the path towards a special season for his beloved program against the Houston Cougars.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m., KSL Newsradio). Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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