COUGAR TRACKS

Kalani Sitake Believes 2023 Is His Deepest BYU Football Team Yet

Jul 18, 2023, 4:35 PM | Updated: 4:56 pm

PROVO, Utah – A big talking point for BYU football entering its first season in the Big 12 is depth. Do the Cougars have the depth necessary to handle the rigors of a schedule that features 10 games against Power Five competition?

We will soon find out when the season kicks off on September 2.

Head coach Kalani Sitake knows what it takes to transition into a power conference. He had a front row to Utah’s transition from the Mountain West to Pac-12 when he was a defensive coordinator on Kyle Whittingham’s staff.

Depth was a calling card back then, and it continues to ring true for Sitake’s BYU program that left independence for the Big 12.

“I think we knew going into this conference that depth is going to be the key. So we tried to improve our depth,” Sitake said to KSL Sports. “When people say improve your depth, it’s talent, too. You have to have talented guys.”

This season will be Sitake’s eighth as head coach at BYU. Compared to past offseasons, Sitake and his staff had a significant lift in retooling the personnel. The 2023 roster has nearly 60 new faces joining the team that were not on the roster during last year’s 8-5 campaign.

Kalani Sitake believes 2023 is his deepest BYU team yet

Have all these moves led to BYU’s deepest team since Sitake took over in 2016?

“I believe so,” said Sitake. “I think there’s a lot of talent on the team.”

Despite the improved depth, with so many new faces, there is some inexperience behind projected starters. Fall camp, which begins on August 1, will be an opportunity for that depth to round into form. But Sitake likes the talent.

“Let’s start at quarterback, Kedon Slovis–tons of experience. But you know, it’s not like Cade (Fennegan) or Jake (Retzlaff) are that far off,” said Sitake. “Then you’re looking at the others that are in that room like Nick Billoups, … and then you also add the emergence of a young quarterback like Ryder Burton. I feel really good about that room.

“There’s definitely guys that have more experience. But even in that [quarterback] room, Jake and Cade have a little bit more experience than the others. So that’s just one position. But there’s a lot of other positions where you can kind of see the similar thing, where there’s great ability and great talent, it’s just not their time yet, or they just need to compete and earn that time.”

Adding numbers in the trenches

The trenches have been a big priority since Sitake took over as BYU’s head coach seven years ago. When he arrived on campus, he wanted “humongous” linemen. He’s delivered that as BYU is back in the business of producing NFL offensive linemen, with Brady Christensen and Blake Freeland being selected in two of the last three drafts. An accomplishment that BYU wasn’t able to produce for more than a decade.

The talent doesn’t appear to be slowing down on the offensive front. Kingsley Suamataia was a preseason first-team All-Big 12 pick and is viewed as a potential first-rounder in next April’s NFL draft. BYU also returns Connor Pay, one of the most versatile players along BYU’s line.

BYU added ten transfers to play in the trenches at the offensive or defensive lines. The offensive line additions were significant as they added Paul Maile from rival Utah as a graduate transfer. Maile was the starter at center last year for the Utes. They also added Maile’s former Ute teammate Simi Moala.

They also picked up Weylin Lapuaho from Utah State, who started a dozen games at guard last year in his freshman season.

BYU wasn’t in the market to add another offensive lineman after spring ball concluded. Still, they had the opportunity to get Oklahoma State starter Caleb Etienne, who had drawn interest from schools in the SEC.

“I think the key was for us to get the best talent and let them compete,” said Sitake.

New depth at linebacker

Everyone is intrigued to see what BYU’s revamped defense will look like under the direction of former Weber State coach Jay Hill. Look at Hill’s history through the years, he has always been connected to excellent defenses in Ogden and up on the Hill at Utah.

 

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One of the areas of focus for Hill’s defense to add depth was at linebacker. BYU already had two proven standouts, with Ben Bywater and Max Tooley returning. They added Utah State grad transfer AJ Vongphachanh who picked BYU over South Carolina and Minnesota.

Vongphachanh recorded 101 tackles last year for Utah State. His arrival takes the pressure off surging freshmen Isaiah Glasker and Ace Kaufusi from being thrown into a Power Five starting role. But coaches came away impressed with the youngsters that earned first-team reps in spring while Bywater and Tooley were rehabbing from shoulder injuries, while Vongphachanh hadn’t entered the portal yet.

BYU also added Oregon transfer Harrison Taggart, who arrived on campus in June for summer conditioning and will compete for playing time this fall.

“Getting AJ to join the team, and not only that, but having him connect with Ben [Bywater] and Max [Tooley], and seeing the connection that they have with each other. For us to get him here, it was an easy sell,” Sitake said when asked by KSL Sports about Vongphachanh. “Now, for him to choose us, that’s another thing. I’m really happy he was able to do that because Justin Ena and Jay Hill are very convincing and he saw himself really thriving here.”

BYU football strength staff reshuffled

If BYU’s depth stays healthy and develops, BYU could have a great chance of exceeding the low 11th projected finish from the Big 12 media. On the flip side, if they experience the level of injuries they did last year, with 42 different starters through nine weeks, it could be a tough inaugural season in the Big 12.

Sitake restructured the strength and conditioning staff to help prevent those injuries. Former BYU linebacker Coleby Clawson is the Director of Sports Performance, with Dr. Skylar Mayne underneath him. BYU also brought in Ryan Phillis from Purdue as the director of strength & conditioning to go along with assistants Spencer Reid, Kalani Simeona, Dalton Elliot, and Terrance Motley.

“They all speak the same language. … I like the fact that they’re able to collaborate and work together; there’s no egos. The mindset is focused on the players, and what we can do individually and our specified workouts for everybody. I think it’s working out really well for us. We had a really good spring, were physical, and got some things done. For the most part, we stayed as healthy as we could.”

Kalani Sitake’s mentor and former coach, the late LaVell Edwards, used to say going into any season when he was BYU’s headman, “I think we’ve got a chance to be a pretty good football team.” The same could be said for Sitake’s first Big 12 team if the depth materializes as he believes heading into camp.

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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Kalani Sitake Believes 2023 Is His Deepest BYU Football Team Yet