COUGAR TRACKS

10 Things We Learned From BYU Football In 2023

Nov 28, 2023, 4:12 PM

PROVO, Utah – The 2023 BYU football abruptly ended with a double-overtime loss in Stillwater to Oklahoma State. It was a difficult way for BYU’s season to close as it signaled no postseason berth for only the second time since 2005.

BYU finished the season with a 5-7 record overall, 2-7 in Big 12 action. Safe to say, it wasn’t the best first impression in BYU’s new league home.

There are so many angles to take from this season, but here are 10 things that we learned from the 2023 BYU football season.

1. Offensive Line was the biggest disappointment

The BYU offensive line was expected to be the strength of the entire team as they transitioned into the Big 12 Conference. Instead, it became the biggest liability.

There were signs of these issues in 2022, but BYU did not change the staff entering the Big 12. There’s been a change now, as Darrell Funk is no longer with the program.

BYU’s offensive line gave up seven sacks in 2023. According to Pro Football Focus’ stat tracking, BYU’s offensive line allowed 63 quarterback hurries this season. Kedon Slovis was under a lot of pressure and endured some hard hits.

These are underwhelming numbers for a group that featured preseason All-Big 12 selection Kingsley Suamataia at left tackle.

The offensive line hit a low point at West Virginia, where BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said they whiffed too much. The film didn’t lie. There were blatant whiffs along that offensive front.

This group got off on the wrong foot when Connor Pay was placed at guard instead of center. They switched it up at TCU, but BYU was already at the midway point of the season.

Amidst the struggles, Utah State transfer Weylin Lapuaho was a bright spot at guard. He’s expected to be back next year as a junior. It will be interesting to see what Senior Day honorees Pay and Brayden Keim take advantage of the COVID year to return for another season.

2. Blowout losses hurt the BYU football brand

BYU’s losses at TCU, Texas, West Virginia, and a 32-point home beatdown against Iowa State were not good looks for the 2023 team. But also the BYU football brand.

No longer was Kansas the cellar dweller in the Big 12. Was BYU the new bottom feeder? That’s a question I heard around Big 12 press boxes this year. BYU didn’t finish last in the league, but they weren’t far off from the bottom.

Losses were expected in BYU’s first year in the Big 12. That didn’t shock anyone. But to get blown out in the fashion that they did? It was surprising.

3. BYU football under Kalani Sitake won’t quit

In back-to-back years, we’ve witnessed BYU football teams mired in losing streaks, yet they don’t quit on a season. This season’s group didn’t have the feel-good ending as last year. But the 2023 team provided some valiant efforts as large underdogs against Top 25 teams Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Both games were there for the taking. It just felt that BYU forgot how to win ball games.

The positive is that Sitake has a program that won’t give up when faced with adversity. You can build on that moving forward.

4. Jay Hill’s defense showed promise in year one

BYU finished 96th in scoring defense, allowing 29.8 points per game. For total defense, they were 107th, giving up 417 yards per game. Those aren’t great numbers. But, in year one, for Jay Hill, inheriting a defense at rock bottom in college football after the 2022 season was a step in the right direction.

Hill has a system and a scheme that he and Kalani Sitake believe in. The question will be, can he get the personnel he needs to operate the scheme at a higher level in year two?

5. Tight End position regressed, lacked depth

Here’s a trivia question for you. Which tight end was second in receiving yards behind Isaac Rex in 2023?

Take your time.

If you guessed defensive end Tyler Batty, you would be correct.

Batty’s 36 receiving yards on the fake punt play against Oklahoma State vaulted him up the receiving yards ladder and put him in second for receiving yards among tight ends this season.

That’s not a great look. It was a role in why well-liked Steve Clark was let go on Monday.

Was Clark to blame for how the tight ends are used in the offense? That probably falls more on the offensive coordinator. But the tight ends did regress in 2023.

BYU had to turn to summer additions Mata’ava Ta’ase and Ray Paulo as viable options behind Rex.

Heralded four-star freshman Jackson Bowers is going to be a good player for BYU down the road, but he wasn’t ready to earn game action this season. Exiting spring ball, the idea of him not seeing any game action this season didn’t seem likely.

Were there bigger issues with the offense? Absolutely. But the tight ends are not excused from any blame.

6. Shocking to see how much BYU struggled on the ground

BYU finished last in the Big 12 this season in rushing yards. They averaged 104.3 yards per game on the ground. That’s a discouraging number for a team that felt the running back unit was as deep as it’s ever been since Kalani Sitake took over as head coach.

The offensive line played a significant role in the struggles. It also didn’t help that Aidan Robbins suffered a rib injury in fall camp that wasn’t addressed until week three against Arkansas.

Once healthy, Robbins picked up steam and found his place in the offense. He can potentially be the face of the offense next year if he opts to return.

Freshman LJ Martin was also a standout when he was healthy. After his injury suffered against Texas Tech, Martin’s workload wasn’t as frequent, but a 1-2 punch of Robbins and Martin is a building block for the future.

In an era of the transfer portal always available to the players, are Robbins and Martin still bought into what this offense can do for running backs? Retaining these two should be a top priority for BYU.

7. BYU should not be pigeonholed to mobile QBs only

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick has done a great job with quarterbacks since he joined the staff in 2018. He helped Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall become NFL quarterbacks. Baylor Romney won some key games for BYU.

Tanner Mangum produced a victory at No. 6 Wisconsin during Roderick’s first year on the staff.

BYU even won a bowl game with Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters last season.

So, he deserves some credit for the successes that he has had. It’s one of the reasons he’s getting another chance as the playcaller next season. He’s built up years of successful quarterback play and has an eye for talent. Scout team Ryder Burton could be a good one in the future.

2023 was a step back at the quarterback position for Roderick and BYU. The narrative coming out of the season is that Roderick can only have success with a mobile quarterback. Look, a dual-threat quarterback is a nice luxury. However, there should be nothing wrong with a dropback passer that sits in the pocket. That works in the NFL. Why not at BYU, a place that holds a high standard for quarterback play?

Coming into the season, Kedon Slovis was considered a perfect fit for Roderick’s scheme. Slovis acknowledged he learned the offense quickly and head coach Kalani Sitake felt Slovis had been at BYU for years. It didn’t work out.

Maybe the issue can be chalked up to the offensive line.

But BYU needs to adjust its offense and find ways to create success for a pocket passer. Quick hit passes, play action. There are ways to have success with a dropback passer. BYU shouldn’t limit itself to a running quarterback.

Jake Retzlaff showed well against West Virginia. But he had costly mistakes against Iowa State, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State that sunk BYU’s chances of clinching bowl eligibility.

8. Young linebackers have star potential

Coming out of the 2023 season, BYU has a solid nucleus of young linebackers. Those players are Harrison Taggart, Siale Esera, and Ace Kaufusi. All three had moments of success throughout their first years in the program.

Esera was dealing with injuries, which limited his availability at the beginning and end of the season. Ace Kaufusi came on strong after going through spring practices getting first-team reps. Then Harrison Taggart took to the defense quickly after arriving from the University of Oregon in July.

BYU also has Isaiah Glasker and Maika Kaufusi at the outside linebacker spot.

9. BYU football has a reliable kicker

Coming out of spring practices, there was an uneasiness at the kicker spot. BYU special teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga was never worried, but the media witnessed miss after miss during spring ball.

We should have taken the cues from Poppinga as Boise State transfer Will Ferrin emerged as a reliable kicker for BYU.

The 48-yard field goal that he made with the season hanging in the balance against Oklahoma State was clutch. Even though BYU lost that game, Ferrin should come away feeling confident about his play heading into the offseason.

BYUtv’s Spencer Linton reported that Ferrin was recently placed on scholarship. It was well-deserved.

10. Big 12 is hard

Too many people make the mistake of judging the Big 12 Conference based on the logos on the helmets. Are there many National Title contenders? Probably not.

But you will find that the Big 12 has elite running backs, physical offensive lines, and excellent coaching.

It’s a good league. There won’t be a blueblood in the league after Texas and Oklahoma depart, but this conference 1-16 can rise up and knock off anyone on a given week. The conference has a knack for landing high-end three-star prospects and turning them into highly productive college football players.

Iowa State might lull you to sleep with how they play, but they have one of the best secondaries in college football. When they play their A-game for a day, TCU can hang with nearly anyone in the sport. West Virginia leaned into its identity running the football with a stable of running backs and quarterback Garrett Greene.

It’s a tough league that will remain a challenging conference with the Four Corner schools from the Pac-12 joining.

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 X and Threads: @Mitch_Harper.

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