BYU Football Players Poised To Make Leap During 2021 Season

Aug 8, 2021, 12:59 AM
BYU Football - Uriah Leiataua...
BYU football defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua after the Cougars defeated Tennessee in 2019. (BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)
(BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

PROVO, Utah – Last year, during BYU football fall camp, no one expected Zach Wilson to produce the type of season he did. From fans sending e-mails to Aaron Roderick asking him to bench Wilson to now the starting quarterback at the New York Jets, it was quite the leap for Wilson.

Because of Wilson’s leap, BYU put together their first one-loss season in 25 years and finished with a final No. 11 ranking.

Who could those guys be this year? That’s one of the questions Kalani Sitake is excited to see answered during the 2021 season.

“You can see how much [improvement] can take place in a year. Zach (Wilson) went from really being not known in the football world to the second pick in the NFL draft and a starting quarterback right now,” Sitake said. “That’s exciting that these guys know him. And they’ve been here with him for the last few years and have seen the progress that he’s made. They’ve seen the commitment he’s made, especially in the last year. So a lot of them now understand that can be done. So that’s encouraging to them.”

BYU football players set to make a leap in 2021

Who are those guys that look poised to make a leap? Here are some names to keep an eye on.

Neil Pau’u, Wide Receiver

According to Fesi Sitake, Pau’u is the most underappreciated player in the BYU football program. He’s not wrong either. Pau’u was a top-three receiver a season ago on an explosive offense. He comes back and now looks poised to be one of the top two receivers after an impressive start to Camp Kalani.


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A post shared by Neil Pauu (@neilpauu)

He focused on shedding some weight this off-season, and he appears to be in the best shape of his BYU career. The BYU wide receiver room appears to be the deepest under Kalani Sitake, and Pau’u looks poised to be a key factor in that group.

Clark Barrington, Guard

Seeing Brady Christensen go from two-star recruit to Consensus All-American and third-round NFL draft pick, anything is possible. That trajectory could be in the future for offensive guard Clark Barrington. Once an unknown recruit in the Pacific Northwest, Barrington has turned into a mainstay along BYU’s offensive line.


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A post shared by Clark Barrington (@clark_barrington)

Now he has the chance to elevate his game to a higher level and turn himself into an NFL player. If Christensen can do it, why not Barrington, who was downright dominant in some games last season. Barrington’s late-season injury against Coastal Carolina was a big setback during the loss against the Chanticleers.

He’s healthy now and will be one of the foundation blocks next to All-American candidate James Empey in the line’s interior.

Max Tooley, Linebacker

Tooley steps into a bigger role at linebacker alongside standouts Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili. One of the hardest hitters in the program, Tooley racked up 44 tackles a season ago. Being elevated into a bigger role with Isaiah Kaufusi onto the NFL, Tooley’s athleticism looks to be a big asset for Kevin Clune’s linebacker unit this fall.


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A post shared by Maxwell Lowell Tooley (@maxtooley23)

Keenan Ellis, Cornerback

BYU’s cornerback room has a lot of intriguing prospects. Sometimes junior Keenan Ellis gets overlooked, but he’s going to get the opportunity to win a starting job and be a mainstay at one of Jernaro Gilford’s cornerback spots.


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A post shared by Keenan T. Ellis (@keenantank)

During the media observation portion, Ellis was with the first-team defense to open up camp and had a nice pass breakup. He also made some plays on the ball during day two of practice in a video released by BYU’s athletic department.

At 6-feet, 181-pounds, Ellis has the measurables that align with what BYU football likes from their cornerbacks. Now is his shot at becoming one of the top defensive backs in the program.

Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua, DE/JACK

I still remember the Signing Day in 2014 when Bronco Mendenhall landed a letter of intent from Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua. Pulling him from Stanford was a big Signing Day coup for BYU.


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A post shared by Uriah Lopa Leiataua (@lopa58)

Seven years later, Leiataua heads into his final season at BYU. His career, to this point, has been plagued by injuries. But now he’s fully healthy and appears on a path to be one of the starters at defensive end.

Last year during fall camp, Leiataua was a star before suffering a knee injury that limited his availability the entire season. Despite the injury, Leiataua still managed to record 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. When healthy, he has the talent to be one of the top pass rushers BYU has in their multiple defensive fronts.

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: @Mitch_Harper.

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BYU Football Players Poised To Make Leap During 2021 Season