COUGAR TRACKS

Burning Questions For BYU Football Entering Big 12 Media Day

Jul 11, 2023, 1:41 PM

BYU Football, Kalani Sitake, Big 12 Media Day...

BYU football head coach Kalani Sitake will be one of the five attendees representing the Cougars at Big 12 Media Day. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

ARLINGTON, Texas – BYU football is about to take a stage they’ve always wanted to be on. That’s the Big 12 football Media Days stage at AT&T Stadium in Texas.

Gone are the days of holding their own Media Day as an FBS Independent. Instead, they will be among seven teams, including TCU and Texas, during the Day 1 talking sessions.

There’s a lot to like about BYU’s team in 2023. They have a veteran quarterback with Power Five experience to replace Minnesota Vikings draft pick Jaren Hall.

BYU retooled the running back unit, plus the offensive line, and they have a new staff on the defensive side.

But how does it stack up in a 14-team Big 12 that is anyone’s guess to win this fall?

BYU will be represented by head coach Kalani Sitake, quarterback Kedon Slovis, wide receiver Kody Epps, defensive end Tyler Batty, linebacker Ben Bywater, and punter Ryan Rehkow at Wednesday’s event.

Whenever some of these guys grab the mic here in Texas, these are some of the burning questions on my mind.

How do BYU players feel about being picked No. 11 in preseason poll?

It’s a new world for BYU being in a conference. Preseason disrespect is actually a thing being part of the Big 12 Conference. The media that cover this league are in wait-and-see mode for this BYU team. They picked the Cougars to finish 11th.

What will BYU players say about being picked so low? Will they use this as motivation and “bulletin board material?” They should. One, because they have a real chance to exceed those low expectations this year. But also, because they haven’t had the chance to use a preseason poll as motivation in their careers.

The last time BYU was part of a preseason conference poll was in 2010 during the Mountain West Conference era. Kody Epps was eight years old when that happened.

It’s all new territory, and it will be interesting to see how BYU responds.

What’s the latest with the BYU football roster?

Last month, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said he had a few scholarship openings on the roster. By my tracking, BYU currently has 83 of its 85 scholarships allocated for the 2023 season.

What will he do with those final two scholarships? Are there walk-ons that could earn those spots, or do they leave them open for a potential fall transfer to hold off until next season?

Sitake also noted last month that players who are medically retiring or moving on from football due to academics would be finalized entering July.

What is the strength of the defense right now?

You’d be hard-pressed to find any negative press about the arrival of defensive coordinator Jay Hill. Hill’s approach has been a complete 180 from what BYU has seen in the past.

Throughout his coaching career, Hill has always been part of teams that fielded good defenses. Some have even been elite nationally.

No one is expecting Hill to suddenly piece together a Top-10 defense this year, especially after BYU was near the bottom nationally in numerous metrics.

But what does Sitake believe is the strength of Hill’s defense heading into fall camp?

Sitake and Hill see eye to eye on how defense should be run. Kyle Whittingham influenced both at the University of Utah.

Is the strength at linebacker? During spring, with Ben Bywater and Max Tooley out while recovering from surgeries, it looked thin. But with the additions of Utah State transfer AJ Vongphachanh and Oregon’s Harrison Taggart, is this the spot where BYU feels ready for the rigors of the Big 12? Plus, BYU has Isaiah Glasker and Ace Kaufusi, who made significant strides in their development during spring practice.

Could it be in the secondary? Or is it at the position no one is talking about, the defensive line?

What changes with a traditional dropback quarterback?

Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall were dual-threat quarterbacks. Kedon Slovis is more of a traditional dropback passer. To his credit, he did show in spring practices at BYU that he is capable of running the football. During the second week of practice, he had a touchdown run on the ground. But that was with the peace of mind that no one would hit him.

So what changes from the offense with a quarterback that will look to pass the rock more often?

BYU stocked up in the receiver room to surround Slovis with playmakers. The return of Kody Epps from the transfer portal was big. But maybe just as big was the addition of UConn transfer Keelan Marion. The explosive Marion was a big-play threat at UConn and has the ability to make an immediate impact for the Cougars.

BYU’s offense also has a deep running back unit. The leader of that group is UNLV transfer Aidan Robbins. Some preseason prognostications tabbed Robbins as the preseason first-team All-Big 12 running back. There are lofty expectations for Robbins. But there are options behind with Hinckley Folau Ropati, Colorado transfer Deion Smith, Miles Davis, and freshman LJ Martin, who arrived on campus last month.

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.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU in the Big 12 Conference on Twitter and Threads: @Mitch_Harper.

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Burning Questions For BYU Football Entering Big 12 Media Day