BYU 1-on-1: What does Cougar football’s recruiting class tell us?
Daily Herald sports writers Darnell Dickson and Jared Lloyd give their opinions on the hot BYU sports topics this week:
1. BYU football was ranked as the No. 44 recruiting class in the country after Wednesday’s signing day. Is that the “Big 12 bump” we’ve been hearing about since the Cougars joined the league?
DICKSON: I think that’s part of it. A BYU offer to play in the Big 12 carries more weight than an offer to play an independent schedule. If a player has a Big 12 offer, other power conference teams take a little more notice.
Since I’ve been covering BYU football the Cougars have often been in the 60-80 range for recruiting rankings, so they’ve done quite well in development of those 2-star athletes. Now, with more 3 and 4-star recruits, BYU is building the infrastructure to improve on their development in strength and conditioning, nutrition and training.
I also think Kalani Sitake and his coaching staff have been able to sell BYU’s unique culture to athletes who are warry of just becoming a NIL number in another program. All of those factors have produced what might be the Cougars best recruiting class ever, though there is a lot of road to cover before that can be declared.
LLOYD: As many of you already know, I’m a complete skeptic when it comes to the questionable value of recruiting class rankings and the absurd practice of putting “star ratings” on players. It’s a mediocre attempt to quantify the unquantifiable … i.e. how good a player actually is.
There are just too many factors that come into play to break down athletes and teams that way. And the reality is that they are getting less accurate than they were previously. You look at the 31 athletes and eight returned missionaries that BYU highlighted on Wednesday and you have to ask yourself just how many will even be on the Cougar roster on Sept. 1, 2025. Half? Three-quarters? It likely won’t be all of them, that’s for sure.
But while I’m going to wait and see just how good this recruiting class actually is instead of making some sort of premature speculation, I will say that BYU is certainly more attractive to a certain subset of college recruits because of their Big 12 membership. How could it not be?
But BYU is still BYU and so it has to go fishing in a smaller pool than most schools. Getting more of the big fish is promising but it comes down to whether they fit and are ready to perform at an elite level.
2. Last year the BYU football roster turned over by more than half with around 60 new players from the transfer portal, recruiting class and missions. This year it’s around half that. Is that a good or a bad thing?
LLOYD: To me there is no question about this one: It’s definitely a good thing.
As I noted in Question 1, BYU has to play to its strengths. One of those is the fact that it can provide an atmosphere of growth that many other institutions are lacking. To me, that translates to depending on team cohesion for success over individual ability.
Bringing so many players in made that team cohesion shaky throughout the season and it showed on the scoreboard. While I don’t think there were major locker room issues with compatibility between players or players and coaches, the Cougars rarely seemed to be all on the same page consistently when they took the field.
I’m optimistic that bringing back a large number of returners and relying on guys who have been in the program to fill the gaps will pay dividends. I think that unity is a natural outgrowth of what head coach Kalani Sitake preaches and he and his staff do well at incorporating it into the preparation and execution.
DICKSON: Turning over the roster was necessary last season as BYU made its first steps into the Big 12, but it did create a lack of continuity on both sides of the ball that was pretty apparent after a 14-0 win in the opener against lowly Sam Houston (3-9).
The final two games of the season — competitive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — showed what a team pulling together could do.
The Cougars went heavy on the defensive side of the ball in recruiting, especially on the defensive line. On offense, it looks like they are fully committed to the players already in the program while adding some depth at key spots.
I think fewer new players on the roster is a good thing and will result in a better overall performance in 2024.
3. The BYU women’s basketball team upset No. 18 Baylor in the Marriott Center Wednesday night. How did the Cougars do it?
DICKSON: Head coach Amber Whiting said the captains approached her about changing up the pre-game structure. BYU has really struggled in the first quarter this season and on Wednesday led 22-11 going into the second. That’s a big difference than trying to fight uphill so much so whatever changes they made worked.
A key factor was the play of freshman guard Amari Whiting. She is one of the top recruits the Cougars have ever landed and she’s had some nice moments this year. But the fact is Nani Falatea was supposed to be the point guard in 2023-24. She was injured, played three games and quit the team in December.
That (and an ACL injury to junior guard Ari Mackey-Williams) put a ton of pressure on Amari to play the point guard in the Big 12. I felt like on Wednesday she was terrific in keeping BYU in its offensive sets and getting scores.
The other key factor was the Cougars were able to answer every time the Bears tried to shift into a higher gear. BYU led by 11 after one quarter and won by 12, so they matched Baylor with every surge.
LLOYD: Darnell is correct that Amari Whiting was a key catalyst to the Cougar win, but she had quite a bit of help around her as well.
For the 2023-24 season, this BYU squad has averaged shooting 45.1% from the field, 38.5 % from the 3-point line and 62.7% from the charity stripe. Those aren’t terrible numbers but they often aren’t winning numbers either.
Facing a good Baylor team, the Cougars exceeded their averages in all three categories, making 52.6% of their field goal attempts, 40% of their 3-pointers and 76.9% of their free throws. That shooting allowed BYU to play from in front the entire game, which can be a big boost of confidence for a young squad.
The Cougars would probably liked to have fewer than 19 turnovers, but at least BYU had more assists (20) and limited Baylor to 21 points off of those turnovers. That’s a winning formula for this Cougar squad.
4. What is it going to take for the BYU men’s basketball team to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2021?
LLOYD: I think with less than a month to go, the key for BYU is pretty simple: Just a get a few more wins.
Given the strength of the Big 12 conference and what the Cougars have done to this point, it would take a pretty dramatic collapse for BYU to not get into the Big Dance this year. While such a streak of losses isn’t likely, it is possible (just ask the Cougar football team).
In breaking down the nine games BYU has left, there are home and road games against Oklahoma State (10-13 record, currently No. 133 in the NET rankings), home and road games against Kansas State (15-8 record, No. 76 in the NET), a home game against UCF (13-8 record, No. 65 in the NET) and a home game against TCU (16-6 record, No. 37 in the NET).
While there are also opportunities against ranked teams at No. 4 Kansas, at No. 14 Iowa State and at home against No. 13 Baylor, I think if BYU gets five wins they are a clear lock. Even four wins would probably be enough.
Less than that against the teams they have left and a poor showing at the Big 12 tourney, though, could have the Cougars sweating on Selection Sunday.
DICKSON: It’s been a tough couple of weeks for BYU in terms of health. A flu bug has run through the team and they are just now coming out of it. The loss at Oklahoma was a tired performance on the second game of a road trip.
One of this team’s strengths is that they have been able to bounce back from a loss with a good performance the next game, and that has to happen on Saturday against Kansas State. The Wildcats have been up and down but knocked off rival Kansas last week, so they are on a high. The Cougars need to continue to roll at home in the Marriott Center.
Most experts are thinking a 9-9 record in the Big 12 gets BYU into the NCAA Tournament and I think they are definitely capable of that, maybe better once everyone is healthy. The Cougars have strong metrics in the computer rankings as well, which matter much more than the poll numbers.
5. Former BYU distance runners Conner Mantz and Clayton Young qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics in the marathon by finishing 1-2 at the US trials. Do they have a chance of bringing home a medal in August?
DICKSON: I had to look it up (thanks, Google) but the last US medal in the Olympic Marathon was a bronze by Galen Rupp in 2016. The last silver was by Meb Keflezighi in 2004 and the last gold was by Frank Shorter in 1972.
The marathon has been dominated by athletes from countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia for years, so Mantz and Young have their work cut out for them. Their dreams came true just to qualify, now the really hard work begins.
Young said he and Mantz will get a chance to check out the course at the Paris Marathon in a few months, which will be helpful. Young also said he likes to visualize his races and that will be key for a chance to medal in August.
LLOYD: It may seem overly optimistic but the chances for Mantz and Young might be better than I thought. I also did a little research to do some time comparisons. I was curious where the times of the two former Cougars matched up compared to international competition.
Mantz finished the 2024 US Olympic marathon trials in 2:09:05, while Young was one second back. I also saw Zach Panning’s name down at No. 6 (2:10:50).
In the 2023 World Athletic Championships in Budapest, the winner of the marathon was (not surprisingly) from Uganda, Victor Kiplangat with Israel’s Maru Teferi coming in second. But their times were 2:08:53 and 2:09:12 respectively, which shows that Manz and Young had competitive times with some of the best in the world. Panning was the best US finisher that day, coming in 13th at 2:11:21.
Now don’t read too much into those numbers, since marathons can be vastly different depending on a lot of factors. And I don’t know enough about the sport to know if the best runners were even in Budapest.
But it at least gives me a valid reason to hope at least one of those two former BYU stars can power through and be in the mix down the stretch in Paris later this year.
BONUS QUESTION: Kansas City Chiefs (with former Cougars Andy Reid and Matt Bushman) or San Francisco 49ers (Fred Warner) in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday? Who you got?
LLOYD: Wait, this is actually about a football game and not about the impact of celebrities on television ratings!? That’s not what social media has seemed to indicate in the last couple of weeks — but then social media is designed for ridiculousness, isn’t it?
I know some football fans are tired of seeing Kansas City in the Super Bowl, just like they were with the Patriots and the Cowboys and the Bills of years gone by, but you have to give Andy Reid and the Chiefs for finding ways to be consistently at the top in an era of parody.
But I also like seeing other teams get to celebrate and I think it’s Fred Warner’s turn. He is arguably the top former BYU athlete in the NFL and one of the most consistent players in the league. But his one trip to the Super Bowl didn’t result in a win.
I think the 49er defense will be fired up to play better than it did against the Lions and while Patrick Mahomes is an excellent player, I don’t think he’ll be able to get enough help from his defense like he did in beating Baltimore.
I grew up cheering for Steve Young’s 49ers and so the young football fan would enjoy relieving those memories if San Francisco hoists the Lombardi Trophy.
DICKSON: Well, since my Cowboys got dusted by the Packers IN THE FIRST ROUND, I’ve been pretty detached from the NFL playoffs. I’m more focused on what kind of wings to make in my air fryer for our Super Bowl party (Any suggestions?)
If I must choose, I choose the Chiefs and Andy Reid. Any self-respecting Cowboys fan would NEVER pick the 49ers to win anything. Dwight Clark, I still hate you.