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BYU Football: The State of the Program

BYU Football: The State of the Program

This article was a feature in my 2024 Jeff Hansen BYU Football Preview Magazine. It's 135 pages full of BYU and BYU opponent specific information. If you enjoy this feature, consider purchasing the magazine for just $10 HERE!


Another year of BYU football is officially upon us. Unlike most years, the general pulse of the fanbase seems to be pretty dismal. There is consternation about BYU’s quarterback situation, about the schedule that the Cougars will play this season, about BYU’s ability to fix the problems on offense and defense, and just an overall sour taste in everyone’s mouths after the final five games of last season.

But is the heartburn worth it? Or are there a whole bunch of Tums sitting next to BYU fans ready to combat the pain, but are going ignored?

It’s time for a State of the Program Address. Let’s get into it.

Coaching: Continuity vs. Shaking Things Up

BYU’s offense was last in the Big 12 in just about every meaningful offensive category last year. Given the results, it would have been justifiable for BYU to dismiss any number of offensive coaches. The entire offense was broken and, therefore, every position group was evaluated.

In the end, Kalani Sitake elected to keep offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and allow him to make the changes that he felt were appropriate. Before anyone jumps to ‘HE KEPT RODERICK BECAUSE HE WON’T FIRE HIS FRIENDS,’ let’s talk about it.

Yes, Kalani Sitake will fire his friends. He fired Reno Mahe. He fired Tevita Ofahengaue. He fired Ty Detmer. He fired Alema Fitisemanu. He fired Ilaisa Tuiaki. He will absolutely fire his friends.

Will he hold onto coaches for a little while longer than the regular fan might want him to? Definitely, but is that a bad thing?

The basketball team is maybe the best case study right now. Mark Pope finished fifth in the WCC two seasons ago. This past season, his roster was largely the same. Noah Waterman was back. Jaxson Robinson was back. Spencer Johnson was back. Trevin Knell was back. The team was back but the results were very different. BYU went from fifth in the WCC to fifth in the best basketball conference in America.

Camaraderie matters. Camaraderie REALLY matters in the transfer portal era.

Obviously, BYU’s roster wasn’t exactly the same. Aly Khalifa was sprinkled into the mix and was brought a new wrinkle to BYU basketball. The team was largely the same, with a few key changes at key places.

That’s what Sitake is hoping to see with his coaching staff this year. He didn’t overhaul the whole thing, but he did make some key changes. Darrell Funk is out. There really wasn’t a way to justify keeping Funk on the staff. His lines weren’t perfect in 2021 and 2022, but they were plenty serviceable. But in 2023, the BYU offensive line was completely abysmal. The offensive line had an NFL left tackle in Kingsley Suamataia, a stalwart of a center in Connor Pay, and three highly thought of transfers in Weylin Lapuaho, Paul Maile, and Caleb Etienne. And yet, the offensive line was absolutely dreadful last year.

Funk is out and TJ Woods is in. Woods knows Sitake, Roderick, and a bunch of other BYU coaches. He wasn’t the sexy hire that fans hoped for, but the early returns were promising. First thing Woods did? Convince Pay to stay for another season. He also convinced Brayden Keim to stay for another season. Those were two big additions to the offensive line in 2024.

It remains to be seen what Woods’ offensive line will look like on the field, but he has to be better than what Funk put on the field last year.

Steve Clark was also let go. This was a surprising move to a lot of people, myself included, but BYU hit a home run with his replacement. The Cougars tapped former NFL tight end coach Kevin Gilbride as the new tight end coach at BYU. He has a host of NFL experience and is now bringing a proven pedigree to Provo. He doesn’t have recruiting experience (but he did land a commitment from Blake Bryce already in the 2025 cycle) but he should help the on-field product in a big way. Clark was very solid for BYU. Gilbride has the potential to be even better.

Woods and Gilbride will help form a blocking scheme and running game. They have to prove themselves on the field but the path is there.

Every other coach? Back in place and ready to roll for another season. This is a lot like the basketball team. Everyone is back in place and a few key additions are being sprinkled in. Hopefully the results are the same.

The Royal Blue, CougConnect, and BYU’s NIL Efforts

BYU has stepped up their NIL game in a big way. There are two collectives helping BYU players that operate in two different lanes, The Royal Blue and CougConnect. Saying they operate in different lanes is probably putting it mildly. They are operating on two different interstates. And that’s okay!

CougConnect works with individual players that they have a relationship with. They offer fan engagement events, reports from players, access to Q&As, and they do some really good things with fans. It’s a cool experience for fans who each pay a subscription fee each month. The majority of those subscription fees go to the players while some goes to CougConnect themselves to keep the lights on. They create a community of fans and support some BYU athletes with the proceeds.

CougConnect does a good job helping the players they work with.

The Royal Blue is BYU’s officially sanctioned and supported collective. When you hear BYU coaches talking about raising NIL money, they’re talking about money with The Royal Blue. They work with large corporate donors, large individual donors, and have recently started offering FanBoxes where fans can pay a small fee and get swag sent to them. They raise millions of dollars each year and do team-wide deals for all of BYU’s athletic programs from football to women’s volleyball.

The Royal Blue also facilitates a mentorship program with their athletes, connecting BYU athletes to mentors throughout the BYU network of graduates. If a football player wants to go into construction management, The Royal Blue aligns that player with a successful BYU alumni who owns construction businesses.

CougConnect does a good job of keeping the players they work with happy. The Royal Blue is the big dog in the room who helps attract new talent with NIL offers. There is some funny overlap between them sometimes, but both try their best to help BYU succeed, both are led by BYU fans who love the Cougars, and both have seemed to really find their stride in recent months.

The financial component of each platform is improving, particularly at The Royal Blue. They have increased donations in a significant way and have positioned BYU to be a very competitive program for players and recruits. No, BYU isn’t out writing checks the same size as Texas or USC, but BYU is plenty competitive within the Big 12 Conference. Guys like Connor Pay and Tyler Batty aren’t returning to BYU for this season if they aren’t getting lucrative NIL deals from The Royal Blue.

BYU continues to improve on NIL fronts. The excitement of the Big 12 has helped spark donor interest and that must continue for BYU to maintain a competitive product on the field.

There is a notion that BYU does not and will not pay for players. That notion is false. BYU is structured differently than the typical SEC collective that is funded by a few multi-millionaires who only care about winning football games on Saturday, but BYU, particularly The Royal Blue, is well-funded and very competitive in the NIL world. It might look a little different than others sometimes, but that should not be of surprise to anyone. BYU has always been different from others in everything they do. It’s served them well for decades, and it’s proving to serve them well in NIL as well.

Recruiting: Better, Worse, or Some of Both?

The answer to this question can be summed up really quickly. Recruiting is better. Full stop.

But that’s not the kind of analysis you are here for, so let’s get to some detail. What exactly is better about BYU’s recruiting after their first full season in the Big 12?

For starters, the defensive players. BYU added some players who will truly be difference makers in the years to come. None of Faletau Satuala, Ephraim Asiata, Sani Tuala, Therrian Alexander, Naki Tuakoi, or Sefo Akuila would have signed with BYU before the Big 12. BYU probably still could have landed Devoux Tuataga and Kinilau Fonohema, but that’s the difference between the pre-Big 12 and being in the Big 12. The Cougars have always had the ability to land a few Big 12-caliber players in a recruiting class, but this year, BYU landed a class full of them.

The offensive side of the ball didn’t have the same kind of improvement. Are they not improving?

It’s a little more complicated than a simple yes or no. Let’s break it into a couple of sections - every offensive position but the quarterback and the quarterback.  

The non-quarterback positions improved. There weren’t many in numbers, but there weren’t many numbers to give. BYU added Ryner Swanson, one of the best tight ends in America. BYU beat out schools like Utah and Washington for Ikinasio Tupou, a very talented offensive lineman from California. BYU picked up Tei Nacua and he’s a Nacua so what more needs to be said?

A lot of the new faces on the offensive line of the ball came by way of returning missionaries. Dominique McKenzie is one of the fastest players BYU has ever signed. Cody Hagen was a four-star wide receiver. Joe Brown had a bevy of Power 5 offers and will compete for starting time at the offensive line. Pokaiaua Haunga is an incredibly exciting running back prospect who will remind fans of Reno Mahe with the way he plays the position.

BYU didn’t get credit for these players on Signing Day, but these are talented players.

But is it a Big 12 bump? Probably not. BYU landed those offensive players prior to the Big 12, so it’s tough to give the Big 12 credit for the bump. There is no mistake about it, though, the offensive is adding a bunch of strong players this season.

The quarterback position is a different story. BYU did not see a Big 12 bump at the most important position on the team. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems like BYU’s strategy failed them more than recruiting abilities failed them.

Aaron Roderick and Co. went after a trio of really talented quarterbacks early in the 2024 cycle. Luke Moga ended up at Oregon and there is no shame in losing out on a quarterback to Oregon. Would have been great if BYU landed him, obviously, but it didn’t happen.

BYU went after Maealiuaki  Smith who ended up at Oklahoma State. His recruitment was bizarre. Recruitment timelines were mysteriously pushed back with little contact to any of the schools recruiting him. He ended up with Gundy and the Pokes late in the process, but it was a strange path to get there. BYU ultimately elected to not wait for him to figure things out. Maybe they could have waited, but given how things were going, it’s hard to blame them for not waiting.

Isaac Wilson ended up signing with Utah. BYU had actually taken the foot off the gas pedal with Wilson, despite his three older brothers playing at BYU. A Utah fan would probably tell you that BYU backed off because they knew they’d get beaten on Signing Day. A BYU fan would probably tell you that BYU backed off because they saw something in his film or something that they didn’t like. Whatever the reality is, I don’t know, but it didn’t work out.

Aside from those three, BYU didn’t really pursue high school quarterbacks last year. They flipped Noah Lugo from UTSA (a player who had a better off list than most give him credit for), accepted his commitment and moved on. Lugo is a nice player with a bright future, but he is not a contender to start this year.

BYU’s actions clearly illustrate that Roderick was expecting to go to the transfer portal for a quarterback. The problem when he got there? The number of talented quarterbacks in the portal was significantly less than people expected.

Sure, there were transfers from high level programs that would have looked good on paper, but there weren’t very many players who really stood out above the rest. There were a lot of players who were once highly rated guys but never saw their careers materialize. There were some very good players who went to the biggest schools - Dillon Gabriel to Oregon, Will Howard to Ohio State, and a few others - but there weren’t very many.

Up to this point in the 2025 cycle, BYU hasn’t found quarterback success either. There is a long way to go in the recruiting calendar, so not time to panic yet, but it’s disconcerting that BYU hasn’t had more success up to this point in their Big 12 lives. (Editor's Note: At the time of the magazine's publishing, Nolan Keeney had not yet committed to BYU. That has changed.)

But all in all, recruiting has taken a step forward. They have to take a bigger step forward, to be sure, but they have moved forwards. That should be celebrated, even if it’s not quite the ultimate goal.

BYU and the NFL

For the fourth straight year, BYU had at least one player drafted in the NFL Draft. Kingsley Suamataia was selected in the second round by the Kansas City Chiefs. He was the third-straight BYU left tackle to hear his name called in the Draft. That’s definite progress from where BYU was a few years ago.

During this four-year stretch, BYU has had 10 players drafted. BYU had 10 players drafted from the 2008 NFL Draft to the 2020 NFL Draft. Things are definitely better today.

As it stands as of this writing, BYU has 21 players accounted for on NFL rosters. In all likelihood, that number shrinks before the NFL season actually starts. But 21 at any point in time is a healthy number of players representing BYU in the League. BYU is re-establishing themselves as the NFL feeder school they once were.

So, is there NFL talent on the roster today? Well…

The 2025 NFL Draft might be the draft where BYU’s streak is snapped. The aforementioned Pay certainly could get drafted, but he’s an older player and a returned missionary. He’d have to really stand out to play his way into the Draft. The same can be said for Tyler Batty.

There are some younger players who could eventually become NFL players - Faletau Satuala, Ryner Swanson, LJ Martin, and a few others. The best possible 2025 players? Probably newcomer Jack Kelly. Maybe Caleb Etienne if he improves significantly, he has the size and frame of an NFL tackle. Could Chase Roberts or Kody Epps sneak into the Draft with a really strong season? Possibly, but that doesn’t seem super likely.

All in all, BYU’s NFL pipeline is firmly established, but there might be a lull going into the next season.

Is BYU in a Good Place or Bad Place?

Overall, BYU is in a stronger position than they ever have been. If you haven’t been paying attention, the landscape of college football is changing by the day. For BYU to be in the Big 12, even if it’s not the SEC or Big Ten, is significantly better than wallowing away in independence or the Mountain West. This truly is the best time to have been a BYU fan in the last 40 years.

So why doesn’t it feel like it?

Because the expectations are also higher. BYU’s peers are better than they have ever been. BYU has to be better than they have ever been. In order to reach the level of success that BYU fans have always dreamt of - and that is now an actual possibility in front of them - BYU has to execute better than they have ever done. That feels overwhelming and impossible.

It can be done, though. It won’t happen quickly and it probably won’t happen this year, but it can happen. In the meantime, it’s all about incremental progress. BYU needs to be better this year than last year. The goal of winning the Big 12 is farfetched right now but moving from five wins to six? That’s very doable.