Jeff Hansen the byu beat writer for CougarSportsInsider.com, part of the 247sports.com network, was kind enough to collaborate with me on a set of 10 questions about the Aggies fifth opponent for the 2022 season. The Aggies face the byu cougars on the road in the final non-conference matchup of the year for Utah State. Huge shout out to Jeff for joining me this week!!
Back in 2019, byu Head Coach Kalani Sitake was very much on the hot seat after beginning the season 2 and 4 and coming into a November 2nd matchup with Utah State in Logan with three straight losses to the University of Washington, the University of Toledo and the University of South Florida. The cougars came to Logan and trounced the Gary Andersen-led team 42-14. Since that game, the cougars have gone 29 and 7. Do you feel that particular game may have been the turning point not only for the program but more importantly for Coach Sitake?
More than anything, that game against Utah State finally signaled some health for the quarterback position at BYU. It had been a revolving door at the position for the previous couple of years with Tanner Mangum, Zach Wilson, Jaren Hall, and Baylor Romney all getting reps at various points. Though Hall left that Utah State game early, he turned the reins over to Romney who stayed healthy. Then Wilson came back a few weeks later and stayed healthy throughout 2020. In 2021, Hall was mostly healthy (with the exception, ironically enough, of a game against Utah State that also featured an injury to Romney). So far in 2022, Hall has taken every rep at quarterback for BYU.
When BYU has a healthy quarterback, they generally play well. During the first few seasons for Sitake, the quarterback position was a circus. That game against Utah State in 2019 seemed to be the final act of the quarterback circus.
The cougars have already secured verbal commitments from several highly rated high school recruits and are currently boasting 15 total commitments. How do you feel the cougars anticipated move to the BIG-12 has affected the recruiting effort since the move was announced?
The Big 12 has been a huge boost for BYU. I don’t know that recruits are flocking to Provo in order to play Big 12 football, per se, but being in a Power 5 conference has eliminated a negative for BYU. In the past, BYU has always had to explain why independence was or was not good, and recruiting opponents were very quick to point out that they were in a P5 league and BYU was not. Now, those conversations simply don’t have to happen and BYU can focus on things that they feel move the needle for them. So far, the returns are promising.
Junior quarterback Jaren Hall was a very accomplished high school player but was still considered a “dual-threat” quarterback. As a collegiate quarterback, Hall has relied on his legs very little and has become a very efficient passer. Please discuss his development from “dual-threat” to “pocket passer”.
Back in Hall’s days at Maple Mountain High School, he wanted to throw the ball a lot. He ran when he had to, but he tried to throw the ball. Because he’s so good with his legs, I think the industry (myself included) unfairly labeled him as a run-first kind of quarterback. But he has always tried to be a pass-first guy. This year, he’s completing better than 71% of his passes. He certainly can tuck the ball and run, but he hasn’t had to rely on his legs in order to win games this year. He is doing it with his arm and the mere threat of him running has helped open up the passing game for him.
Senior University of California transfer Chris Brooks (38 carries 204 yards and 3 TDs) was originally thought to have earned the lion’s share of the carries this season, yet the running back position seems to be more of a position by committee so far in 2022, with senior Lopini Katoa (29 carries for 110 yards and 1 TD) and freshman Miles Davis (16 carries for 128 yards) all receiving double-digit carries. How has this running back group grown from being what was thought to be a one-man show to being a trio?
It’s been about performance, or more accurately, the lack of performance. Aaron Roderick would love to have a single running back that he could count on each and every week, much like BYU had with Tyler Allgeier. But, despite the opportunity to earn that title, Brooks struggled in a big way against Baylor and Oregon. That forced Roderick’s hand and he’s now having to spread the carries out a little more. I don’t think this committee will last long, though, provided one of these three running backs proves that they can be counted on consistently.
At wide receiver, you’ve been missing your marquee players Gunnar Romney and Puka Nacua for several weeks now. Yet the position group is doing just fine being led by Kody Epps (16 receptions for 112 yards and 2 TDs), Chase Roberts (15 receptions for 223 and 1 TD), Keanu Hill (14 receptions for 283 yards and 3 TDs), and Brayden Cosper (12 receptions for 136 and 1 TD). Talk about the depth of the position group and how they have remained so successful without the “stars” being on the field.
Kody Epps was a standout at Mater Dei High School. He caught balls from Bryce Young and shattered Mater Dei records that had been set by Amon-Ra St. Brown. He’s an incredibly productive player who needed to get healthy at BYU. This year, he’s been healthy. Roberts was an Under Armour All-American coming out of American Fork High School. In most years, he would have been the unquestioned WR1 out of Utah, but he happened to come out the same time Puka Nacua did and was in his shadow. Keanu Hill’s dad played in the NFL for years and Hill has always shown the ability to be counted on for a bigger role. The departures of Neil Pau’u and Samson Nacua a year ago have opened up the chance for Hill. And finally, Brayden Cosper. He came from Bingham High School the same year Dax Milne did. BYU elected to give Cosper the scholarship and Milne walked on. When the two arrived at BYU, Cosper was actually ahead of Milne on the depth chart initially. Freak injuries happened and Cosper found himself on the sidelines while Milne blossomed into an NFL receiver. But Cosper was the guy BYU thought would take off, and he’s showing what he’s capable of this year.
There is an argument to make that these four players have always had the potential to be standouts at BYU but they just never got the chance to play behind elite talent like Nacua, Milne, Romney, and Pau’u these past few years. Now the stage is theirs and they are showing what they’re capable of. Going into this week, BYU is expected to welcome Romney back into the mix for the first time this year, so it will be interesting to see how they work him in.
The tight end position is becoming an untapped resource for many schools across the country, yet the tight end has always been a staple of the byu offense. Three players have combined for 22 receptions for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns. Please explain why the tight end has always been such a mainstay within the byu offense over decades of ever-evolving football strategy and offensive philosophy.
BYU has never been able to consistently recruit elite speed at the wide receiver position. They have always had to rely on crossing routes and crisp route running to have a successful pass game. As such, the tight end has been a fixture for decades. There is a natural recruiting base for BYU to get tight ends too (for whatever reason, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produce a ton of tight end talent). As a result, it’s been a fixture for BYU on the recruiting trail every year. The production is what Cougar fans expect to see from tight ends and it’s what tight ends expect to see from BYU. No matter what offensive system BYU runs, the tight end is a natural strength for BYU and it has to be incorporated into things.
The cougars returned a very veteran group of offensive linemen in 2022, starting with junior left tackle Blake Freeland (32 starts), junior left guard Clark Barrington (31 starts), sophomore center Connor Pay (14 starts), junior right guard and former Aggie signee Harris LaChance (9 starts, 37 games played), and the least experienced dude in the group is the highest rated of either of them with 4-star redshirt freshman University of Oregon transfer right tackle Kingsley Suamataia (4 starts) who was rated as the 6th best high school tackle in the country. Talk about how important it’s been for the cougars to have such a vast amount of experience along the offensive line and how a highly-rated player like Kingsley has fit in so far.
The experience of the offensive line has brought sky-high expectations for the group. So far this year, they haven’t lived up to those expectations. They have been elite in pass protection, but have struggled in run blocking. BYU knows they are capable of more with this group because they have seen these guys produce more in the last few years. I would expect to see BYU try to establish the rushing attack early on against Utah State and try to rely on their big, experienced linemen. For Utah State to win this game, they will need to shut down the run early and hope BYU gets a little one-dimensional. That happened against Oregon and even against Wyoming until Davis started to break out as a productive running back. If Utah State can make that happen, it will be big for the Aggies.
The cougars run a defensive scheme that is listed as “multiple” and list as many as 14 different starting positions on the weekly depth chart. Explain the cougars defensive scheme and just how often some of these interchangeable positions such as “ROVER”, “CINCO”, and “NICKELBACK” will be used throughout a game.
Your guess is as good as mine!
Seriously though, you won’t notice the new positions unless you are really watching closely. Basically, those three spots are in the same position but in different packages. The nickel is a traditional nickel corner that covers the slot. The rover and cinco positions end up lining up in the same spot, but are sometimes filled by a linebacker or a safety and asked to do different things in the scheme. Unless you’re watching that position with a depth chart in your hands, you’ll probably assume it’s a nickel guy on every snap.
With the cougars using so many different players at several different positions, who do you feel have been the defensive standouts so far in 2022 and who are you waiting for to have a breakout game?
Max Tooley has been absolutely sensational for BYU this year. Whether he’s in coverage or getting into the offensive backfield, he’s been productive. He is the unquestioned leader of the BYU defense this season and he can have a big game each and every week. As for a breakout star, BYU is still waiting to see someone in their secondary have a breakout game. Micah Harper has started to see more reps at the safety spot and he seems like a candidate to really break out and cement himself as a starter. He’s got a knack for finding the football and making plays, so he would probably be my best guess for a breakout star.
The cougars have now opened the 2022 season 3 and 1, with a season-opening 52-21 win at the University of South Florida, an exciting 26-20 double-overtime win over future BIG-12 foe Baylor University, a tough 20-41 road loss to an angry University of Oregon team, and last week a 38-24 home win against what is shaping up to be a tough University of Wyoming team. Has anything the cougars have done thus far surprised you at all and what has really stood out to you?
BYU has shown that they can win in different ways, and I think that’s something that good teams do. Against USF, it was the offense that jumped out and handled the game. Against Baylor, the BYU defense put the clamps down and kept Baylor from scoring points. Against Wyoming, the Pokes made the game ugly and BYU had to win playing Wyoming’s style of football. It’s encouraging that BYU can win in different ways, but also a little deflating that four games into the season, BYU hasn’t played particularly well in all three phases of the game. Given how experienced this team was, I would have expected the Cougars to come out of the gates a little more crisp and a little further along from an execution standpoint. That just hasn’t been there so far this year. It’s possible they get there this week, but it’s something worth watching, for sure.