It’s not uncommon for a college football team to proudly state that it is “ahead of schedule” during fall camp.
That’s been a common topic for BYU players and coaches in 2019, with Cougar running backs coach AJ Steward saying he felt like his unit was at Week 3 when it was starting Week 2 and BYU head coach Kalani Sitake telling about how he looked disappointed to his wife after a good first day of camp because he had to come up with something harder than originally planned.
Much of the credit from the Cougar coaching staff for what they perceive as faster progression has been directed at the work the players put in as they have taken greater ownership of the team.
“It’s paying dividends in every part of the program,” Sitake said. “It’s drawn guys closer together in terms of team chemistry. We were looking at how far along we are right now and I feel really comfortable because of the ownership the players are taking on.”
BYU senior wide receiver Micah Simon said the groundwork for the current emphasis was laid at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
“It really hit after last season,” Simon said. “With a staff who first comes in, the coaches are hands-on and want things done exactly their way. But once they get that year under their belt, that’s when they start giving you a little more freedom to do what you feel like is best going to help the team.”
The Cougar players began to realize that they needed to take more on themselves.
“I’ve talked to Coach (Jeff) Grimes a lot and he said that the best teams he’s been with are the ones that had the best leaders, the offenses that were player-led,” Simon said. “We came together as leaders and wanted the best plan that we could set in stone to be the best offense we can be.”
The BYU coaching staff put a lot on the athletes during spring camp, forcing them to instruct each other and learn in the process.
“That’s paying off right now,” Cougar senior safety Austin Lee said. “In spring, it was an emphasis. Great teams have great leaders who manage the system. Since in spring it was about stepping back and seeing how we can improve, it translated to the summer when we had our player-run drills.”
Lee explained that it wasn’t always easy to have another guy on the team be the one to point out mistakes.
“It takes humility when players are coaching you,” Lee said. “At first, it was a little hard for guys to take that. Now the players are more receptive to it. The team is becoming one. I’ve noticed that there aren’t just a few leaders on the team. The whole team is more leadership-oriented.”
That has also changed the way the players interact with the coaches, according to Sitake.
“I want them to feel that their voice matters in this program,” Sitake said. “Obviously as a coaching staff, we will do things that make sense but it’s important for the players to feel like they are being heard. Whether they have good ideas or not isn’t as important as them being willing to share with us and us being willing to listen.”
He said he wants his program to utilize its collective intelligence to find ways to improve.
“You keep trying and you keep working,” Sitake said. “I can think of things and try to run everything myself, but it won’t work well. I have a coaching staff I can turn to but we also have a lot of players we can turn to for more information and feedback. Coaching is giving feedback but I think you can be open as well to feedback from the players. Great lines of communication will help our team.”
The player-teaching emphasis has improved the communication between players, which is something BYU senior tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau said will make a big difference in the pressure-cooker of live action.
“When you are on the field in the game, the coaches aren’t there,” Laulu-Pututau said. “They have very little to do during the actual game. You realize that the more you play. It’s just the guys on the field. They’ll give you the play but at the end of the day, you are running it and you have to fix your mistakes while you are out there.”
He explained that this Cougar squad will be better prepared for that because they have been doing it since spring.
“It helps getting those reps,” Laulu-Pututau said. “Football is a mental game, game of reps and muscle memory. Having had all those extra reps will definitely pay off on the field.”