Top BYU Football Player From Each Recruiting Class Since 2000

Apr 12, 2021, 4:14 PM
BYU Football - Austin Collie - Zach Wilson - Jamaal Williams...
Three of the top BYU Football players from recruiting classes dating back to 2000 in Austin Collie (left), Zach Wilson (middle), Jamaal Williams (right). Photos courtesy of Deseret News

PROVO, UtahΒ – The 21st century has produced many quality players to come through the BYU football program. BYU might have a unique set of standards that separate them from others on the recruiting trail, but recruiting is and will always be the program’s lifeblood.

Sometimes the stars don’t always correctly project who the best player is in a given recruiting class. Did anyone envision three-star quarterback Zach Wilson becoming an eventual No. 2 overall NFL Draft pick?

Here’s a way to recognize the best BYU football player from each recruiting class dating back to 2000. Regardless of their star rating. The focus was solely on the playing field.

Top BYU Football player from recruiting classes since 2000

Keep in mind; this was based on Signing Day additions. Transfers such as Taysom Hill (2012) or walk-ons Dennis Pitta (2004) were not factored into this. This list featured players who signed with BYU out of high school or junior college dating back to 2000.

2000: Eddie Keele, Offensive Line

Eddie Keele - BYU

Photo by Stuart Johnson/Deseret News

In LaVell Edwards’ last recruiting class, Eddie Keele stands out above the rest.

Had it not been for a devastating knee injury that wiped away his senior year, Keele likely goes on to a long and successful NFL career. During his junior year as an offensive tackle in 2005, Keele didn’t give up a sack in over 500 snaps played. He ran a 5.1 40-yard dash and benched 400+ pounds during his career.

Others considered: Mike Rigell (JC)

2001: Aaron Francisco, Defensive Back

Francisco was a star at safety the moment he arrived on campus as a true freshman in 2001. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound defensive back had 163 tackles and seven interceptions in his career.

Others considered:Β Reno Mahe (JC)

2002: Curtis Brown, Running Back

Curtis Brown

Photo by Jason Olson / Deseret News

Brown went from small school two-star recruit to BYU football all-time leading rusher at the end of his career. He had a breakout performance his freshman year in a comeback win against Utah State. After sitting out in 2003, Brown was a model of consistency and rarely put the ball on the turf. He was one of the cornerstones, along with quarterback John Beck, to revive BYU football back to its winning ways.

Others considered:Β Jake Kuresa, Bryan Kehl

2003: David Nixon, Linebacker

From College Station, Texas, Nixon was a heralded linebacker prospect out of the Lone Star state. Nixon turned down the hometown Aggies to sign with BYU. In 2003, he had a breakout performance against San Diego State, recording seven tackles. There, Nixon was a mainstay in talented linebacker units that put together three consecutive 10-win seasons (2006-2008).

Others considered: Dallas Reynolds

2004: Austin Collie, Wide Receiver

Easy choice here. Austin Collie was a big-time recruit in the 2004 class. Stanford was the biggest threat to land Collie, but his older brother, Zac, told Austin to give BYU a serious look and take an official visit. The rest is history. A member of the BYU Athletics Hall of Fame, Collie, piled up 3,255 receiving yards in his three years at BYU.

In 2008, Collie was a Biletnikoff Award finalist as he led the nation in receiving yards per game with 118.31. Collie was a big play receiver who didn’t skip a beat after serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his career.

Others considered:Β Ray Feinga, Todd Watkins

2005: Harvey Unga, Running Back

Once a Utah commit, Unga flipped his commitment to the BYU football program, leading up to Signing Day 2005, the first under head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Unga was part of a Timpview High quartet that signed with BYU in 2005 (Matt Reynolds, Luke Ashworth, Stephen Covey). The 6-foot, 237-pound back went on to be a BYU great, putting his name in the record books.

Unga rushed for 3,455 yards in his three seasons with BYU. The breakout performance for Unga was in the 2007 season opener against Arizona. Unga rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown to help BYU secure the 20-7 win, and from there, he established himself as RB1 in the same backfield with quarterback Max Hall.

Others considered:Β Jan Jorgensen

2006: Braden Hansen, Offensive Line

An all-state performer out of Alta High School, Hansen started in 48 games during his BYU career. He started in all 13 games as a freshman in 2009, returning from serving a Church mission. The success of being on an offensive line unit that finished 11-2 earned him Freshman All-American honors.

Others considered:Β McKay Jacobson, Brandon Ogletree

2007: Eathyn Manumaleuna, Defensive Line

Bronco Mendenhall’s nose tackles in the 3-4 were asked to do a lot, and Manumaleuna was up for the challenge immediately as a true freshman. Manumaleuna started in all 13 games in 2007, capping off his first year at BYU blocking Kai Forbath’s 28-yard field goal attempt to give the Cougars a Las Vegas Bowl victory over UCLA.

Manumaleuna went on to start in 51 games during his BYU career.

Others considered:Β Braden Brown, Jordan Pendleton

2008: Daniel Sorensen, Safety

A heralded prospect out of Colton, California, Sorensen picked BYU over Ole Miss. Sorensen was switched from safety to linebacker his freshman season before returning to safety after his mission. In 2011, Sorensen took over for Andrew Rich at safety and never looked back.

In his three years as a starter, Sorensen racked up 189 tackles and seven interceptions.

Others considered:Β Spencer Hadley, O’Neill Chambers, Michael Alisa

2009: Kyle Van Noy, Linebacker

Kyle Van Noy put together a career that made him one of the most dynamic defensive players in college football the past 20 years. A four-star recruit out of Reno, Nevada, Van Noy had to delay his arrival at BYU a year due to a DUI before Signing Day.

Mendenhall remained committed to Van Noy, and in return, Van Noy stayed committed to BYU football.

Van Noy played four years at BYU, and he was the ultimate impact player who also happened to fill up a stat sheet. Van Noy’s potential was on display his freshman season against rival Utah, where he had seven tackles. From there, he took off to be one of the best defensive players in BYU football history.

In four seasons (2010-2013), Van Noy racked up 219 tackles, 60.5 tackles for loss, 25 sacks, 7 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 32 quarterback hurries, and 17 pass breakups.

Van Noy single-handedly led BYU to a bowl victory over San Diego State in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, where he had 8 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 pick-six, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

Others considered:Β Cody Hoffman, Mitch Mathews

2010: Bronson Kaufusi, Defensive End

The first commit in the famed 2010 recruiting class ended up being the best of the bunch. Bronson Kaufusi was a four-star prospect from Timpview who committed to BYU as a sophomore in high school. Kaufusi flashed big-time potential right away after returning home from a mission for the Church in New Zealand.

Kaufusi’s first two years (2012-2013), he played at defensive end and began to garner award watch list recognition. In 2014, Kaufusi dropped back to weakside linebacker, a spot that just felt out of place for the 6-foot-7 player. After a junior year playing out of position, Kaufusi returned to defensive end his senior year, and he was dominant.

Kaufusi finished his senior year with 11 sacks and 64 tackles that included 20 tackles for loss. In four years at BYU, Kaufusi finished tied for fourth all-time in sacks with 27.

Others considered:Β Alani Fua, Travis Tuiloma, Sae Tautu

2011: Preston Hadley, Cornerback

Preston Hadley came to BYU as a junior college transfer from Snow. When he arrived at BYU, he stepped right in and owned the starting role at the boundary cornerback spot and was a top performer on a pair of defenses that were some of the best in college football.

BYU’s defense in 2012 finished No. 3 in total defense behind only National Championship Game participants Alabama and Notre Dame. Hadley started in all 26 games of his two years with BYU. He had 117 tackles and one interception.

Others considered:Β Corbin Kaufusi, Ryker Mathews, Ului Lapuaho

2012: Jamaal Williams, Running Back

Former BYU assistant coach Paul Tidwell identified a young Fontana, California native in Jamaal Williams early in the 2012 recruiting cycle and made him one of the top priorities in BYU’s class. While many schools were recruiting Williams as a defensive player, BYU wanted him as a running back.

To learn more about BYU, Williams put into Google “byu running back,” and the first result was Luke Staley. Seeing Staley’s highlights, Williams was impressed with the former Doak Walker winner, and BYU became his new home.

At the age of 17, Williams rushed for 775 yards his true freshman season in 2012.

A new “Go Fast, Go Hard” offensive system was put into place in 2013, and Williams alongside Taysom Hill formed a top 10 ground attack at BYU. Williams faced adversity in his BYU career, from injuries in 2014 to an Honor Code violation that led to him withdrawing in 2015.

He returned for his senior year in 2016, and he ran for 1,375 yards, making him the school’s all-time leading rusher at 3,800 career yards.

Others considered:Β Tanner Mangum, Austin Hoyt

2013: Kai Nacua, Defensive Back

A former quarterback at Liberty High School in Henderson, Nevada, Nacua fulfilled his late father’s wish to play at BYU. He had a breakout performance his sophomore year against UCF, where he had seven tackles and his first career interception. The first of many to come.

Nacua ended his BYU career with 14 interceptions. The most by a BYU player since 2000, and tied for fourth all-time for most in a career.

Nacua’s career’s best performance was a hat trick with interceptions in his season debut in 2015 against Boise State. Nacua’s third interception clinched the game as he ran in for a pick-six to clinch the upset win.

Others considered:Β De’Ondre Wesley, Michael Davis

2014: Fred Warner, Linebacker

Fred Warner was committed to BYU for nearly a year, heading into Signing Day in 2014. One of the top linebacker prospects in the country, Warner had it down to BYU, USC, and Arizona State, before he ultimately signed his letter of intent with the Cougars.

When Warner arrived on campus, he immediately had fans and media making comparisons of him to Kyle Van Noy because of the position he played. A high bar to try to replicate, but Warner put together one of the better careers you’ll find from a BYU linebacker.

In four seasons at BYU (2014-17), Warner piled up 260 tackles, 32 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and 6 interceptions.

He was one of the only bright spots in an abysmal 2017 season that saw the Cougars finish with a 4-9 record.

Others considered:Β Sione Takitaki, Matt Bushman, Tejan Koroma

2015: Brady Christensen, Offensive Tackle

When Brady Christensen signed with BYU out of Bountiful, he was a 250-pound offensive lineman who only held an Air Force offer. He ended his BYU career as the school’s first Consensus All-American since Luke Staley in 2001.

Christensen started in all 39 games that he appeared in during his BYU career. Pro Football Focus graded Christensen in 2020 as the highest-graded season by an offensive lineman since 2014.

Others considered:Β Zayne Anderson, Dayan Lake, Micah Simon

2016: Troy Warner, Defensive Back

The first recruiting class under head coach Kalani Sitake still has 14 players that have yet to complete their eligibility. So there are still opportunities for players to write their stories at BYU. To this point, defensive back Troy Warner tops the list for the career he put together at BYU.

A former four-star recruit who was once committed to Oregon, Warner turned down the Ducks and the hometown USC Trojans to follow in his brother’s footsteps and play at BYU.

Warner was a week one starter at cornerback in 2016 against Arizona. Later in his career, he transitioned to safety. Warner battled through some challenging injuries, but he put his best season together at BYU in his senior year.

In 2020, Warner had 29 tackles and two interceptions.

Others considered:Β Chris Wilcox, Aleva Hifo, Keenan Pili

2017: Khyiris Tonga, Nose Tackle

Tonga was once a Utah commit when he began serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while in Kansas. While serving his mission, Tonga received offers from Kansas and Kansas State before ultimately keeping his commitment to Kalani Sitake and Ilaisa Tuiaki, two men close to him and his family early in his football career.

When Tonga arrived on campus late in the fall of 2017, Tonga garnered high praise. Even Ilaisa Tuiaki said Tonga had the potential to be one of the best nose tackles in program history during his career.

Tonga was an immediate contributor to a young football team in 2017. After entertaining the idea of declaring for the NFL draft in 2020, Tonga returned for his senior season and had 36 tackles to go with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble from the nose tackle spot.

Others considered:Β Isaac Rex, Tyler Batty, Chaz Ah You

2018: Zach Wilson, Quarterback

No surprise here. With a bulk of this recruiting class still playing at BYU, they have a high standard to try and top the career Zach Wilson put together at BYU.

After being a longtime commit to Boise State, Wilson opened up his recruitment, and head coach Kalani Sitake instantly got BYU into the mix. Sitake’s strong relationship with the Wilson family won the day as Wilson turned down offers from Boise, Cal, Oregon State, Syracuse, and Iowa to sign with BYU.

Wilson arrived at BYU in the winter semester of 2018 and was able to compete in spring practices. With the quarterback depth chart somewhat open due to Tanner Mangum being injured and BYU coming off a 4-9 season, Wilson shined in spring ball.

He ended up the No. 2 QB behind Mangum before showing off his ability late in a blowout against Utah State. BYU then named Wilson the starting quarterback against Hawaii, making him the youngest starting quarterback in program history.

From there, Wilson capped off his freshman year with a perfect performance against Western Michigan in the Potato Bowl.

2019 was mired in injuries for Wilson. He was coming back from surgery on his shoulder and then he injured his thumb on his throwing hand in a loss against Toledo. BYU then went on to have a win against nationally-ranked Boise State, creating a little bit of a quarterback controversy.

According to Aaron Roderick, fans sent emails to him asking that Wilson not start in 2020. He faced the adversity head-on and got better, making it clear he was the No. 1 quarterback in 2020. He then showed why he was the starter again with one of the best individual seasons by a quarterback in program history, passing for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns, and only three interceptions. Wilson finished 8th in the final Heisman Trophy voting.

2019: Blake Freeland, Offensive Tackle

A large majority of this class has yet to play a down in their BYU careers as they’ve served missions the past two years. Blake Freeland is one of the exceptions as he has emerged as a starting offensive tackle and is now a favorite to replace Brady Christensen at left tackle in 2021.

A former quarterback in high school at Herriman High School, Freeland is a freaky athlete at 6-8, 300 pounds. He was a multi-sport standout during his prep career. It will be interesting to see how Freeland continues to develop in his BYU football career.

2020: Micah Harper, Cornerback

There is still plenty of time for players in the 2020 class to make an impact in the next handful of years. Harper made arguably the biggest impact starting in five games, including the bowl win over UCF. The Chandler, Arizona native suffered an injury during spring practices in March. Kalani Sitake believes there’s a chance Harper could play in at least four games this fall to utilize a redshirt season.

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

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