Football is a team game that requires coordination with everyone doing their part.
For that reason, individual contributions are almost always over-emphasized — the most obvious being how spotlight figures like the quarterback and the head coach get too much credit and too much blame.
But gridiron success does hinge on what individuals do.
Players and coaches talk constantly about being "assignment-sound" and "winning individual matchups" because those can be the difference in a play being a big gain or a big loss.
When BYU competes during the 2021 fall season, its success both on the field and in relation to other teams in college football will be determined by what people accomplish — both in Provo and across the country.
As the 2021 Countdown to Camp gets underway, here is a look at 10 of the individuals who will have the biggest impact on the success of the Cougars:
No. 31: Earl Tuioti-Mariner, junior defensive lineman
Tuioti-Mariner is another case study of an athlete with ability who has had to fight through adversity. He officially only has three total tackles in his career as a Cougar (all coming in 2019) but he is a guy who has frequently been named as a possible difference-maker up front. Now it is his time. If he can stay healthy and perform at the level he is capable of, he will definitely be a key figure in BYU's defensive line rotation.
No. 32: Puka Nacua, sophomore wide receiver
No one who followed high school football in Utah has any doubts about the type of talent Nacua has. He was brilliant at Orem, perhaps one of the most unstoppable players in Utah prep football history. His college career at Washington didn't quite play out the same way. While he showed flashes of brilliance (tallying 16 receptions for 319 yards and three TDs in 11 games), he also dealt with injuries and other challenges. Now he gets a fresh start close to home.
No. 33: Uriah Leiataua, senior defensive lineman
Just like Kapisi, Leiataua seized a chance to return and get another season wearing his blue-and-white BYU uniform. It's been a tough road for the senior as his career has been stymied by injuries. He has had to work to be able to play and this year was no exception. On a unit that lost all three starters, however, he also has a chance to show more of what he can do on the field in addition to being a great team leader.
No. 34: Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia head coach
One of the most fascinating off-field moments BYU football will have in 2021 is how will Mendenhall be treated when he returns to Provo nearly six years after stepping down as the Cougar head coach. Mendenhall amassed a 99-43 record in 11 years at BYU but chose to leave to take over at Virginia, taking a lot of the Cougar coaches with him. While he has had modest success overall, the Cavaliers certainly haven't become an ACC powerhouse yet. It will be great to have a little reunion, but the game should be intriguing as well.
No. 35: Harris LaChance, sophomore offensive lineman
Sophomores are often looked at as up-and-coming athletes who are still reaching their potential. LaChance, however, doesn't really fit that mold. He has already played in 28 games in his BYU career, which definitely puts him as a veteran. With the Cougars losing some key pieces in the trenches, LaChance has to step up and be even better. If he can be solid in pass protection and continue to run block well, it will be a great foundation for the BYU offense to build on.
No. 36: Britton Hogan, sophomore long snapper
One of the most underrated position in football is the job done by the long snapper. Fans just expect them to be perfect. When there is a mix-up, either in communication or execution, the results can be devastating. That's why BYU needs Hogan to continue to be really good. If he is, that will enable the Cougar kicker and punters to be at their best as well. Freshman Austin Riggs could also be called on, if necessary.
No. 37: Jared Kapisi, senior defensive back
After the success of 2020, most the BYU players who were seniors elected to move on with many heading to the NFL. Kapisi, along with a couple of others, chose to return. While the senior has seen limited action in his career (nine total tackles, one interception, two pass breakups), 2021 is his chance to shape the course of the defense. Some of that will be on the field but even more important will be his knowledge and leadership.
No. 38: Jeff Grimes, Baylor offensive coordinator
For the last few years, Grimes has been a lot higher on this list. Now, however, he has taken his coaching acumen back home to Texas just in time for the Bears to host the Cougars. Grimes certainly knows the majority of the BYU players on both sides of the ball but will that make that much difference in mid-October? It's hard to say for sure. The bigger question is whether Grimes can help Baylor once again be a force in the Big 12 conference.
No. 39: Dallin Holker, sophomore tight end
While Holker may not have gotten the change to shine in the brilliant offense of 2020, he has already established himself as a playmaker. He had 19 catches for 235 yards and a touchdown playing opposite Matt Bushman in 2018. Holker is just back from his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so it may take a little while for him to get to full strength. When he does, though, it's going to be big for the Cougar offense.
No. 40: Josh Wilson, freshman linebacker
Although he has had to deal with the moniker of being "Zach Wilson's younger brother," Josh Wilson expects to emerge as a playmaker in his own right. His numbers in 2020 weren't eye-catching (five total tackles in eight games) but he likely will get more opportunities this fall. If he can show the instincts that made him a force at Corner Canyon High, he could end up as surprising people with the impact he has on the Cougar defense.
No. 41: Clark Barrington, sophomore offensive lineman
Since the offensive line is so vital to the success of a football team, that is the unit that is featured at this spot as well. While Barrington may not have gotten the same attention as former Cougar lineman like Brady Christensen and Tristen Hoge, he has been a steady, impactful presence for BYU in 20 games in the last two seasons. His understanding of the offensive scheme and strength will be key for the Cougars in 2021.
No. 42: Herm Edwards, Arizona State head coach
Few football programs in the country are dealing with the combination of expectations and turmoil like the Sun Devils are. While on the one hand some prognosticators believe ASU could win the PAC-12 title, Edwards has to try to navigate the distraction (and possible consequences) of alleged violations of restrictions put in place during COVID-19. It may be one of the tougher challenges the long-time veteran will have faced in his career, which could result in a team that is really good or on that really struggles.
No. 43: Payton Wilgar, sophomore linebacker
It would be easy to argue that Wilgar deserves to be higher on this list, since he had 57 total tackles with five tackles for a loss, five quarterback hurries and four pass breakups in 2020. BYU will definitely need the sophomore from Dixie High to continue to be a playmaker both in stopping the run and the pass but he can still elevate his game. Although a lot of Cougar defenders have experienced, Wilgar is someone who could emerge as an even bigger performer for the defense.
No. 44: Hobbs Nyberg, freshman punt returner
There are few plays in football that are such enormous momentum-changers as when a team muffs a punt. Instead of a defense getting off the field and the offense having a chance to score, the defense has to come back out — usually having surrendered huge chunk of yards. That's why Nyberg's performance this fall will be enormous for the Cougars. He may of just had 10 official punt returns for 58 yards in 2020 but he also had no fumbles. That's a stat all BYU supporters want to see stay at zero this year.
No. 45: Fesi Sitake, wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator
It's impossible to miss how well BYU wide receivers have performed under Sitake's guidance, culminating in Dax Milne having an incredible season and getting selected late in the 2021 NFL Draft. This year Sitake may have as deep and experienced a unit as he has ever had, which will be beneficial since he is also taking on the role of passing game coordinator. He will certainly have a big say in what happens when the Cougars take to the air this fall.
No. 46: Khalil Shakir, Boise State senior wide receiver
The Broncos may have a new head coach but any team that has a receiver of the caliber of Shakir is going to be dangerous. While BYU's offense was able to pound BSU in 2020, Shakir still found a way to get free for a couple of scores. He is a guy who opposing defenses have to be aware of at all times and if Boise State is going to return to the national stage this fall, he will be a big part of the Bronco success.
No. 47: Masen Wake, sophomore fullback/tight end
While Wake got a lot of attention early in 2020 for both his hurdling ability and honoring his late mother by putting the words “Rest in heaven, Mom” on the shirt under his jersey in the Cougar win at Houston, he was a steady contributor when he was on the field. He finished last year with eight receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown but was also a key blocker for the potent BYU offense. He's a guy who will do the little things that help the team be successful.
No. 48: Caleb Christensen, freshman defensive back/kick returner
The role of the kickoff returner has evolved in recent years with rule changes bringing the fair-catch option into play. While it's not likely that Christensen will be breaking off big returns, he still needs to be smart around the goal line and help provide the Cougar offense with good field position. He should also play a key role in the BYU defensive secondary.
No. 49: Nick Rolovich, Washington State head coach
In a PAC-12 season that was severely crippled by league reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rolovich never really got a chance to get the Washington State offense to the level he wanted. This is another Cougar team, however, that has a variety of weapons and should be really dangerous offensively. It's certainly not going to be an easy victory when BYU travels to Pullman on Oct. 23, but if Rolovich can elevate the WSU profile and the blue-uniformed Cougars can still win, that would be another attention-getting statement.
No. 50: Connor Pay, freshman offensive lineman
The countdown kicks off with a young lineman who hasn't seen a ton of action (played in eight games in 2020) but stepped in at a key moment in the bowl game against UCF and played so well that no one noticed the difference. Don't be surprised if the 6-foot-5, 300-pound former Lone Peak star becomes a big contributor on the Cougar interior and helps the BYU offense continue to roll.