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BYU 1-on-1: Examining Cougar football priorities heading into 2024

By Darnell Dickson and Jared Lloyd - | Dec 6, 2023
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BYU football coach Kalani Sitake on the sideline during a game against Iowa State at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
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BYU junior quarterback Jake Retzlaff celebrates scoring a touchdown during the Big 12 game against Oklahoma State at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
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BYU head coach Kalani Sitake talks to Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall before the 66-49 Cougar win at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (Courtesy BYU Photo)
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BYU's Mark Pope motions for a sub during a men's college basketball game against Southeastern Louisiana at the Marriott Center on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2023.
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New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) reaches across the goal line as he is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay (50) to score a two-point conversion during the third quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Daily Herald sports writers Darnell Dickson and Jared Lloyd give their opinions on the hot BYU sports topics this week:

1. What should be the No. 1 priority for BYU football in the offseason?

DICKSON: There are many needs to address, but the overall focus needs to be on getting every player in the program bigger, stronger and faster. That may seem like a trite answer but if the first year in the Big 12 proved anything it was that BYU is still growing in those spaces.

The 5-2 start showed some promise. The five straight losses were really due to injuries and lack of quality depth behind the starters. The final two games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State proved the Cougars can compete in the league.

Now the goal should be to do that in every game, not just the last two. As the Big 12 money starts to come in, BYU needs to beef up its resources in all areas. So the getting bigger, stronger and faster doesn’t just apply to the players but to everyone on the staff and associated with the program. This is Big Boy Football now. Buckle up.

LLOYD: One of the most underrated aspects of success for programs like BYU is having a strong, cohesive foundation. Some places can rely mostly on being the most talented, but not the Cougars.

I think of it like building a tower with 125 wood blocks. If the base is sound, you can swap a few of the top pieces out and still have a nice structure. When you rip it all apart and try to cram 60 new ones in quickly, your stability is flimsy at best and things will often come crashing down (as we saw with the Cougars in the last half of the season).

That’s why I want to see BYU focus on in-program recruiting first, trying to get guys to buy in and come back stronger together — like what the Cougar men’s basketball team has done this season.

So far I like the fact the BYU football hasn’t had a mass exodus to the transfer portal like many other schools have. It is even more positive to hear a leader like Tyler Batty say he is coming back to be part of that foundation.

If the Cougars get a lot of guys to do that, don’t be surprised if fans wonder how players suddenly became so much more talented when really all that happened was they got more comfortable and perform at a higher level.

2. Do the Cougars need to go to the transfer portal for a quarterback?

LLOYD: The short answer should be no.

This is the program that found and developed a pair of NFL QBs in Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall without relying on “get-rich-quick” schemes in the portal. Aaron Roderick’s recent success tells me that he should trust his perception that his current signal-callers, particularly Jake Retzlaff, are going to shine.

Sure, there are a lot of quarterbacks in the portal who have had varying degrees of success at their last schools. How will they do in Provo? Will they mesh with their peers and the coaches? Will they stay healthy? Will chasing after them be like the common meme showing the boyfriend holding an irritated girl’s hand while looking at another girl walking the other way, damaging current relationships that could’ve led to success?

No one knows the answers to these questions but I think there are a lot more negatives that should be kept in mind instead of just expecting a transfer to swoop in and save the day. It happens for a few teams in college football, but the failures vastly outnumber the successes.

DICKSON: The transfer portal has completely changed the way the coaches recruit and build a roster. I don’t think there is ever a question of whether or not the coaches should be looking in the portal. Any coach who doesn’t see what’s available is not doing his job.

I don’t think a one-year guy like Kedon Slovis is necessarily the answer. I would prefer a youngster that can be in the program and spend some time learning the system. But with the number of quality quarterbacks already in the portal, you can’t completely rule out an experienced player who could start immediately.

I think Jake Retzlaff showed some promise and he can improve over the spring and summer. The younger quarterbacks (Cade Fennegan, Nick Billoups, Cole Hagen and Ryder Burton) are really in a state of flux right now. I would expect to lose a couple of those guys to the portal, especially if the Cougars get another quarterback out of the portal.

It’s a very unsettling situation but it’s the norm in college football these days.

3. What do you think about former BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall reportedly taking the New Mexico job?

DICKSON: I have mixed feelings on the matter. Certainly I think Mendenhall is a good coach and the profession is better off with him in it. I think he will make the Lobos a contender in the Mountain West Conference.

The issue is how he will deal with the transfer portal and NIL. He often said while at BYU he wanted the players to recruit the school, not the other way around. He doesn’t like entitled athletes but he won’t be able to avoid those situations.

How will he handle an athlete who wants a bigger NIL slice, or a player on the current roster perhaps wanting to test out the transfer portal waters? Things have changed pretty dramatically since he left Virginia in 2021.

LLOYD: Once a coach, always a coach, right?

When Mendenhall chose to step down at Virginia, he said he wasn’t retiring but that he was re-examining what and how he was doing the job.

In many ways, I think New Mexico is almost the perfect fit for Mendenhall. He always said he is looking to work at institutions that have a greater purpose than just athletic success (things like the religious element at BYU and the academic focus with the Cavaliers) and mentioned service academies as a possibility.

While I’m not sure exactly how New Mexico fits that element, going to a place where he has a strong connection since he was the defensive coordinator for the Lobos from 1998-2003. It is also a place that I don’t think will be as focused on the aspects of the sport that Mendenhall doesn’t view the same way as others, things like NIL money and politicking for national accolades.

I think he will likely go to coach and work to teach another generation of student-athletes how to become the best individuals they can be, which I feel is what he really wants to do.

4. Who is your most valuable player on the BYU men’s basketball team after eight games?

LLOYD: Isn’t it great to have so many athletes who deserve consideration? I think that is even more laudable considering how dismissive so many critics and fans were of this group coming into the season, saying the Cougars weren’t good enough shooters, athletic enough or consistent enough to win.

Since I could see valid arguments for at least six or seven players, I’m going to call an audible and take out the word “player” from the question.

Who is the most valuable person on the BYU men’s basketball team right now? I say it is head coach Mark Pope.

I’ve been critical of what I felt was a high-volume transfer-based philosophy of Pope’s program in the last couple of years, seeing it fail to produce regular success. He could’ve done the same thing heading into the Big 12 this fall, blowing up the roster and desperately trying to build around transfers.

Instead, he bet mostly on the Cougar players who were already in Provo and only had a couple of additions — and now he and BYU are reaping the rewards. He has his guys playing elite-level basketball basically every game and deserves tremendous credit for trusting they could do that and putting them in that position.

DICKSON: There are plenty of candidates because this is one of the deepest teams the Cougars have ever put on the court.

So far, Jaxson Robinson has been an elite shooter off the bench and leads the team in scoring. I also love what Richie Saunders is doing off the bench.

Dallin Hall has been really good as the point guard, creating shots for others and hitting from distance. Trevin Knell is so much more than just a 3-point shooter and is maybe the best relationship guy on the team. Noah Waterman is one of the most improved players in all of college basketball.

But my MVP so far is Spencer Johnson. The oldest player in Division I (26) is a huge factor for this team both on and off the court. His experience and versatility allow him to impact the game in so many areas: Offense, defense, ball handling and just overall leadership are so important to this group. He can take over a game or he can just facilitate for others and he’s just fine with that.

5. Should Zach Wilson go ahead and step back into the starting quarterback role for the New York Jets or should he just stay on the sideline and hope to be traded somewhere else?

DICKSON: It’s a difficult situation that is even more complicated because Zach was the second pick in the NFL Draft. Has he lived up to expectations? No. Certainly there are factors beyond his control (a bad offensive line, no running game, receivers with the dropsies) that have made things really hard for him.

I don’t know that I believe he refuses to go back in as the starter. In fact, Jets head coach Robert Saleh said he had a good conversation with Zach, who told him he was ready to do whatever the team needed him to do.

Zach doesn’t have a lot of leverage to demand a trade and get to the team of his choice. The Jets wouldn’t want to give him away for nothing.

Could Zach improve his stock with some solid performances? Yes. But can he? The Jets are a mess and I’m sure he’s concerned about getting hurt, which would really be a blow to his next move.

It would also be a red flag for some teams if he is actually refusing to play. I think we can all agree, however, that getting away from the Jets organization would be best for him.

LLOYD: This This question is more complicated than it appears on the surface because there is so much going on behind the scenes with the Jets that outsiders aren’t — and shouldn’t be — aware of.

How healthy is Wilson? How is his relationship with the rest of the offense, offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett and head coach Robert Salah? Where is his confidence level in what the team is trying to do?

I believe in a couple of fundamental principles like a competitor should always want to compete if possible and take advantage of opportunities when they are available. But I’m not in Wilson’s shoes and neither is anyone else but him. He’s the only one who knows everything that is going for him in the current decision-making process.

I want to see Wilson play smart, confident football, something that has rarely happened during his time in New York. Is that his fault or the team’s fault? Probably some of each.

But unless he finds that again, his pro football career will probably never live up to the expectations set when he left BYU.


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