COUGAR TRACKS

Ranking BYU Football’s Best Players To Sign During The Kalani Sitake Era

Feb 7, 2024, 1:00 AM

BYU Football, Zach Wilson, Kalani Sitake, Signing Day...

BYU football head coach Kalani Sitake with a freshman Zach Wilson during the 2018 season. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – We’ve reached Signing Day in the BYU football offseason.

It’s hard to believe, but the 2024 recruiting class is Kalani Sitake’s ninth as the head coach at BYU. There have been a lot of players who have come through the program during that time.

I wanted to look back at the high school recruits and transfer portal prospects in the Kalani Sitake era who have had the best careers at BYU.

The focus on this list was scholarship athletes whom BYU recruited out of high school and in the portal. So, this Top 25 won’t include former walk-ons Tyler Allgeier and Dax Milne.

Also, the focus of these players is centered around how their careers shook out at BYU, not how they’ve performed in the NFL.

Top BYU football players who signed with the Cougars in the Kalani Sitake era

With that being said (see, that’s a recruiting joke), here’s my Top 25.

25. Ty’Son Williams

Running Back

2019 Transfer Portal Cycle | University of South Carolina

Years at BYU: 2019

Ty’Son Williams only played in four games for BYU. But his talent was undeniable as he helped BYU secure big wins over Tennessee and USC in 2019. He put out enough film at BYU, and from his time at South Carolina, he still earned opportunities in the NFL.

24. Weylin Lapuaho

Offensive Line

2023 Transfer Portal Cycle | Utah State

Years at BYU: 2023-Present

Lapuaho was one of the best transfers for BYU in the 2023 portal cycle. He started 10 games at guard for BYU last season and will be one of the top offensive linemen in the program moving forward.

23. Troy Warner

Defensive Back

Class of 2016 | San Marcos, California

Years at BYU: 2016-2020

It might seem strange now, but Troy Warner, the younger brother to BYU great Fred Warner, was once an Oregon commit. He flipped to BYU when Bronco Mendenhall was the head coach, but once Kalani Sitake stepped in as head coach, he had to solidify Warner’s pledge.

Warner earned starts at cornerback in his freshman year, causing future NFL DB Michael Davis to go to the bench. Later in his career, Warner switched to safety. He would have been higher on this list, but injuries limited Warner’s availability.

22. Samson Nacua

Wide Receiver

2021 Transfer Portal Cycle | University of Utah

Years at BYU: 2021

Nacua’s touchdown catch against his old team, Utah, was probably enough to get him on this list. But Samson proved to be a productive receiver for the Cougars in his one year in Provo.

21. Gunner Romney

Wide Receiver

Class of 2018 | Chandler, Arizona

Years at BYU: 2018-2022

Romney played in 43 games during his BYU career and had 1,959 career receiving yards. That was while navigating various injuries. When BYU landed him out of Chandler High School in Arizona, he had initially pledged to Ty Detmer’s offensive staff.

BYU was able to maintain his commitment and he was a productive player in his five years. But injuries limited him from being higher on this list.

20. AJ Vongphachanh

Linebacker

2023 Transfer Portal Cycle | Utah State

Years at BYU: 2023

Vongphachanh is what you want from a graduate transfer with one year of eligibility remaining. No nonsense, leader in the locker room, and produces every week on the field. In his one season at BYU, Vongphachanh had 85 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.

19. James Empey

Offensive Line

Class of 2017 | American Fork High School

Years at BYU: 2017-2021

Out of high school, Empey signed with Utah. Then, after serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he joined Kalani Sitake’s BYU program, where his dad, Mike, was the offensive line coach.

Empey didn’t appear in any games when his dad was the offensive line coach, but he was good enough to earn the starting center role when Jeff Grimes took over the offense.

In four seasons playing for BYU, Empey started 41 games at center.

18. Chris Wilcox

Cornerback

Class of 2016 | Fontana, California

Years at BYU: 2016-2020

Chris Wilcox’s only offers were to BYU and Southern Utah coming out of high school. Both of those offers were connected to former associate head coach Ed Lamb. Wilcox joined the BYU program and had some early struggles as a freshman. But over time, with his elite speed, he became a lockdown corner for BYU.

17. Micah Harper

Defensive Back

Class of 2020 | Chandler, Arizona

Years at BYU: 2020-Present

Kalani Sitake doesn’t make comparisons often to players, but when BYU signed Micah Harper in the 2020 cycle, the head coach drew instant comparisons to former BYU DB Dayan Lake. The similarities have been easy to spot.

Like Lake, Harper is a hard-hitter who is versatile in the secondary. He can play cornerback or safety. Also, like Lake, Harper has settled in at the safety spot.

The key for Harper moving forward is to stay healthy. He’s dealt with multiple season-ending injuries during his first four years with the program. But when he’s on the field, he’s a playmaker on the backend of BYU’s defense.

16. Max Tooley

Athlete/Linebacker

Class of 2016 | Bountiful High

Years at BYU: 2018-2023

Tooley was one of the top recruits in Kalani Sitake’s first recruiting class in 2016. He signed with BYU as an athlete/safety, but once he was done serving his mission, he moved up into the box and played linebacker.

During his six seasons at BYU –yes, six– (redshirt year and COVID season), Tooley racked up 219 tackles, two sacks, and six interceptions. During the 2022 season, he returned two of his interceptions for pick-sixes.

15. Kaleb Hayes

Cornerback

2021 Transfer Portal Cycle | Oregon State

Years at BYU: 2021-2022

It’s not often you get cornerbacks with speed who are willing to hit. That was Kaleb Hayes in his two seasons at BYU. The former Oregon State transfer piled up 67 tackles and 18 pass deflections.

14. Connor Pay

Offensive Line

Class of 2018 | Lone Peak High School

Years at BYU: 2020-Present

Connor Pay has been a key player along BYU’s offensive line since his impromptu appearance as a third-string center in the 2020 Boca Raton Bowl. Pay has started in 33 games throughout his BYU career. Most of those starts have taken place at the center position. To begin the 2021 and 2023 seasons, he started at guard. But Pay’s best position is at center.

He returns for one final season in 2024.

13. Isaac Rex

Tight End

Class of 2017 | San Clemente, California

Years at BYU: 2019-2023

Isaac Rex leaves BYU as the program’s all-time leader for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 24. He finished his BYU career with 112 receptions for 1,385 receiving yards.

12. Ryan Rehkow

Punter

Class of 2017 | Veradale, Washington

Years at BYU: 2020-2023

If you’re ranking all-time greatest punters in BYU football history, Ryan Rehkow made a strong case to take that title from Lee Johnson. During his four seasons at BYU, Rehkow averaged 47.4 yards per punt.

In 2023, he earned Second Team All-Big 12 recognition from the coaches in the league.

11. Jakob Robinson

Defensive Back

2021 Transfer Portal Cycle | Utah State

Years at BYU: 2021-Present

After transferring from Utah State in 2021, Robinson played some safety and nickel, but he’s settled in as one of the top cornerbacks. He enters his senior season in 2024 with eight career interceptions. He has the chance to be only the 15th player in BYU history to reach 10 interceptions in a career.

10. Kingsley Suamataia

Offensive Tackle

2022 Transfer Portal Cycle | University of Oregon

Years at BYU: 2022-2023

Suamataia earned Second-Team All-Big 12 recognition for his play at left tackle during the 2023 season. As a redshirt freshman in 2022, Suamataia earned Freshman All-America honors at right tackle.

Suamataia was the No. 6 transfer portal prospect behind Caleb Williams, Quinn Ewers, Jordan Addison, Eli Ricks, and Jahmyr Gibbs.

Before arriving at BYU, Suamataia was a five-star recruit out of Orem High, signing with the University of Oregon. He was part of the Ducks program for one year.

9. Eddie Heckard

Cornerback

2023 Transfer Portal Cycle | Weber State

Years at BYU: 2023

Eddie Heckard followed Jay Hill to BYU. It wasn’t an easy pickup for BYU as they had to beat out Cincinnati, UCLA, and others to land him out of the transfer portal. But he delivered the playmaking ability BYU hoped for.

Heckard had 47 tackles, one sack, five interceptions, three forced fumbles, and 11 pass deflections for BYU. He earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week last October after the win over Texas Tech.

8. Clark Barrington

Offensive Line

Class of 2016 | Spokane, Washington

Years at BYU: 2016, 2019-2022

An under-the-radar two-star recruit in Kalani Sitake’s first recruiting class from the Pacific Northwest became an All-American guard at BYU. Barrington started in 40 games at BYU and was a second-team All-American by some outlets in the 2021 season.

He transferred to Baylor for his graduate season in 2023 to reunite with Jeff Grimes. During that one season in Waco, Barrington played center and left guard for the Bears.

7. Ben Bywater

Linebacker

Class of 2017 | Olympus High School

Years at BYU: 2019-Present

Bywater’s rugby film as a prep standout at Olympus High got him noticed by BYU coaches and he decided to commit to the Cougars. He didn’t make a dent in BYU’s linebacker unit until his third season in 2021, where he piled up 102 tackles in relief of an injured Keenan Pili.

Since then, Bywater has become a star in BYU’s defense.

Last year, the captain linebacker suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him after the Kansas game. He announced that he was returning for one final season.

Bywater has the chance to climb the record books at BYU for tackles in his career. Heading into the 2024 season, Bywater has racked up 247 tackles.

6. Tyler Batty

Defensive End

Class of 2017 | Payson High School

Years at BYU: 2020-Present

Batty got on BYU’s recruiting radar because of Ty Detmer. The former BYU OC saw Batty at a Mountain West Elite camp and he became a top target for BYU in the 2017 recruiting class.

Immediately after that, BYU’s defensive coaches pursued him and he signed with the Cougars out of high school.

Through four seasons at BYU, Batty has 15 sacks and 165 tackles. Last season, he earned Second Team All-Big 12 honors at defensive end.

He announced that he is returning to BYU for one final season in 2024.

5. Blake Freeland

Athlete/Offensive Tackle

Class of 2019 | Herriman High School

Years at BYU: 2019-2022

Everyone knows the story by now, but Blake Freeland played every position you can play in football during high school, except at the offensive line.

Freeland was a coveted recruit for BYU in the 2019 recruiting class. Once BYU landed his signature, they knew they would put the 6-foot-8, 260-pound prospect at offensive tackle.

Freeland played his first live offensive line snaps against one of the top edge rushers in college football in 2019 when he got the start against Boise State. From there, Freeland never looked back as he became a star on BYU’s offensive line for the next three seasons and earned All-American recognition in 2022.

4. Khyiris Tonga

Defensive Line

Class of 2017 | Granger High School

Years at BYU: 2017-2020

A signing day surprise in 2017 was the addition of Granger High prospect Khyiris Tonga. Tonga previously signed to play for Sitake at the University of Utah in the 2015 recruiting class. But after serving a mission for the Church in Kansas, he flipped to BYU.

While on his mission, the 6-foot-4, 321-pound Tonga was receiving scholarship offers from Kansas and Kansas State.

During his four seasons at BYU, Tonga played in 47 games and had 130 tackles and 8.5 sacks. Occasionally, he’d lineup as a fullback out of BYU’s scrum formation. He rushed for a touchdown in 2019.

3. Jaren Hall

Quarterback

Class of 2016 | Maple Mountain High School

Years at BYU: 2018-2022

Jaren Hall was a significant addition to Kalani Sitake’s 2016 recruiting class. When Sitake was hired, he and Ty Detmer solidified Hall’s commitment. They got it and Hall, despite facing challenges throughout his BYU career, became one of the all-time great quarterbacks in BYU history.

Hall finished with a 16-8 record as a starter at BYU. He was No. 1 all-time in career interception avoidance percentage with 52 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Hall passed for 6,174 yards and rushed for 796 in his BYU career.

2. Puka Nacua

Wide Receiver

2021 Transfer Portal Cycle | University of Washington

Years at BYU: 2021-2022

You can argue that Puka Nacua is the greatest wide receiver to ever play at BYU. The only player that has a case over Nacua is Austin Collie. Aside from him, no one did it better at receiver than Nacua at BYU.

When BYU landed Nacua out of the Transfer Portal in 2021 from Washington, it was a game changer for BYU.

You could see the greatness from Nacua at a young age because of his work ethic. I remember seeing him at a Margin Hooks clinic in Draper. Nacua, as a high school junior, was competing against Division I cornerbacks and beating them with ease.

BYU wasn’t able to land Nacua out of Orem High School, as he initially committed to USC, then flipped his pledge to sign with the Washington Huskies.

But after two years at Montlake, Nacua moved closer to him to be with his family. It worked out for him and BYU.

Nacua finished with 1,450 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in his two seasons at BYU. He also had five rushing touchdowns for the Cougars. Nacua only played 21 games at BYU and scored a total of 16 touchdowns.

Whenever he touched the ball, you thought something special was going to happen.

1. Zach Wilson

Quarterback

Class of 2018 | Corner Canyon High School

Years at BYU: 2018-2020

Zach Wilson checks in at No. 1 on this list for various reasons. First, Wilson’s 2020 season was one of the best years ever for a BYU quarterback. That’s saying something when you consider the quarterbacks that have rolled through Provo over the past five decades.

Second, Wilson picked BYU at its lowest point following the 4-9 season in 2017. If Wilson doesn’t come to BYU, does Kalani Sitake have his job? There are a lot of “what ifs” you could play that center around the decision of Zach Wilson.

Imagine if Sitake moved forward with Zadock Dinkleman instead of a hail-mary recruitment to land Wilson? The risk paid off for Sitake as BYU was able to flip Wilson from his commitment to Boise State and then beat out a late push from Iowa and other power conference teams for Wilson.

In his three seasons at BYU, Wilson finished with 7,652 passing yards and 56 touchdowns. He also ran for 642 yards and 15 touchdowns. During his junior year in 2020, he finished 8th in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Just missed the cut: John Nelson, Aleva Hifo, Darius Lassiter, Atunaisa Mahe, LJ Martin, Keenan Pili, Kamden Garrett, Christopher Brooks, D’Angelo Mandell.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and hosts the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s’ coverage of BYU in the Big 12 Conference on X: @Mitch_Harper.

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Ranking BYU Football’s Best Players To Sign During The Kalani Sitake Era