Until BYU football fall camp starts in at the end of July, Jared Lloyd is counting down his Top 30 individuals who will have the biggest impact on the 2019 Cougar season.
No. 1: Zach Wilson, So. QB
Is there any other position or figure on a college football team that is more important than the quarterback? That individual has so much responsibility, both on and off the field. That’s where Zach Wilson finds himself now and it’s a big step up. Last year he was the promising freshman who stepped in without any expectations. Now he is looked as the next great BYU quarterback — but no pressure, young man. This is a kid who can handle it and thrive though. If he has a great year, the Cougars will have a great year, which is why he is the most important individual for the BYU football program in 2019.
No. 2: Jeff Grimes, BYU offensive coordinator
The most consistent unit for the BYU football team over the past decade has been the Cougar defense, which was once again very good overall in 2018 (No. 24 in the nation in scoring defense). That means that there is more pressure on the BYU offense to carry a larger share of the load. As offensive coordinator, Jeff Grimes now has a year of personal experience to draw on as well as the experience of the younger players who saw the field last year. Much of the Cougar success will hinge on what lessons were learned on that side of the ball and how much better BYU is.
No. 3: Kalani Sitake, BYU head coach
When you are the head coach, the success of a football team rests squarely on your shoulders. Kalani Sitake has that responsibility in Provo and he made some big moves in the last couple of years. His new offensive coaching staff and his choice to get a lot of young guys playing time should begin paying dividends in 2019. There are obvious challenges but he has always embraced those and wanted his players to do the same. A great year solidifies his position while a good year keeps it in an OK place. He just can't see his team take a step backwards.
No. 4: Zac Dawe, Jr. DL
This might be the biggest surprise in the Top 5 of the Countdown but the reality is BYU has to have someone who can be truly threatening coming off the edge. Zac Dawe has the footwork of a talented wrestler with deceptive agility and quickness. He had 16 tackles in 2018 but four of them were tackles for a loss (one sack). If he is able to grasp the nuances of the position and be dangerous, the Cougar defense will benefit in all areas of the field.
No. 5: James Empey, So. OL
If the offensive line is the engine that makes an offense go, then the center position is the crankshaft that makes sure everything is moving together. That is a role James Empey took on as a freshman and he did a solid job at it. Now he — and the rest of the Cougars — want to take that to the next level and really increase the drive capacity. With Empey organizing and holding down the middle, BYU’s offense has that chance to be exponentially better in 2019.
No. 6: Isaiah Kaufusi, Jr. LB
When Isaiah Kaufusi got hurt at Utah last year, it changed the entire complexion of the game. That gives you an idea of just how valuable this talented athlete is to the BYU defense. He started taking on a bigger role as the 2018 season progressed and others got hurt, finishing with 60 tackles, six tackles for a loss, one sack, two interceptions, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. The Cougars hope to see him back, healthy and playing at an even higher level in the middle of the defense in 2019.
No. 7: Austin Lee, Sr. DB
Since his arrival, Austin Lee has been a contributor in the BYU secondary. Now as a senior leader, the Cougars will rely on him more than ever to keep the defense organized at the back. He was fourth on the team in tackles (41 total) and tied for the team lead with two interceptions last year. He is a steady, consistent performer who BYU can be confident will take care of his responsibilities effectively both on and off the field.
No. 8: Ty'Son Williams, Sr. RB
Heading into camp, it requires guessing to estimate the impact of a graduate transfer but former South Carolina running back Ty'Son Williams looks to be the type who will make a big difference for AJ Steward and the Cougars. He had 184 rushes for 856 yards and five touchdowns in three years with the Gamecocks but only played in five games as a junior in 2018. He has shown that he has good vision and the ability to hit the hole, so those numbers could easily go up this year.
No. 9: Khyiris Tonga, Jr. DL
When you look at the numbers Khyiris Tonga put up as a sophomore, they are decent but not overwhelming: 30 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, two pass breakups, a quarterback hurry and a blocked kick. They only show a glimpse of the impact this athlete can have on the game when he is locked in. With his 6-foot-4, 325-pound frame, Tonga still has decent quickness and can make plays in a variety of ways. He will be the heart of the BYU defensive line this fall.
No. 10: Ilaisa Tuiaki, defensive coordinator
In three losses in 2018, the BYU defense surrendered 35 or more points (Washington, Utah State and Utah). While the overall defensive average was impressive (21.4 points per game allowed), to take the next step toward being a top team the Cougars have to do better in big games. BYU lost some key players but defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki still has quite a bit of experience to work with. He needs to have his squad be more disruptive at the point of attack but overall the defense should be excellent once again.
No. 11: Matt Bushman, Jr. TE
Few players have as high of expectations as tight end Matt Bushman, who looks to join the ranks of the great BYU tight ends of the past. He's been an elite performer in his first two seasons as a Cougar, tallying 78 receptions of 1,031 yards and five touchdowns. But BYU needs him to be more of a consistent threat to open up the rest of the field for the offense. If he can improve and take advantage of his opportunities, he could be poised to tally even better numbers in 2019 than he did in the previous two seasons.
No. 12: Dayan Ghanwoloku, Sr. DB
Quick ... which BYU defender was involved in the most turnovers in 2018? Yes, Dayan Ghanwoloku holds that distinction as he forced one and recovered four fumbles. The Cougars have stated throughout the offseason that they want to be more of a ballhawking defense and the BYU senior will likely be one of the main contributors in that area. With his combination of speed, cover skills and experience, look for Ghanwoloku to take a step forward in creating turnovers and getting the Cougars some big momentum shifts.
No. 13: Brady Christensen, So. OL
Very few people had any idea who Brady Christensen was coming into the 2018 season but after starting in all 13 games as a freshman, he certainly earned plenty of attention. Perhaps the most complimentary was that of Pro Football Focus, who graded out Christensen as the second-best freshman tackle in the country last year. He would be quick to say that he has plenty to work on but under the tutelage of Cougar offensive line coach Eric Mateos and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, he could be on the fast track to being a dominant performer.
No. 14: Zayne Anderson, Sr. LB
Just how good was linebacker Zayne Anderson before he got hurt in 2018? In just four games, he recorded the seventh-most tackles of anyone on the BYU defense for the entire season. He also had a sack, an interception and a pass breakup. He needs to be back at full strength to give the Cougars their best chance to be successful on that side of the ball. Look for Anderson to have a huge year if he is healthy.
No. 15: Gunner Romney, So. WR
The BYU wide receiving corps still have some question marks heading into 2019 but Gunner Romney is a guy poised to answer them. His performance last year was OK (13 catches, 162 yards, two TDs in nine games) but he is capable of doing so much more. With a quarterback in Zach Wilson who looks to be more comfortable at the helm, there should be opportunities for Romney to make some plays. The Cougars need him to be a threat to stretch the field while still being reliable in the possession passing game.
No. 16: Devin Kaufusi, So. DL
With the family name and traditional number on his jersey, the obvious expectation is that Devin Kaufusi is going to fill the shoes of his older brothers Bronson and Corbin Kaufusi. The reality is that Devin Kaufusi still has plenty to prove on the field as he only tallied five tackles and one sack during his freshman campaign. BYU needs him to take a big step forward and become a disruptive force on the defensive line. If he can elevate his game and start making more plays, it will increase the success level of the entire defense.
No. 17: Tristen Hoge, Sr. OL
Tristen Hoge is a big guy (6-foot-5, 306 pounds) with a big personality. Now as one of the key leaders on a BYU offensive line with big expectations, Hoge is almost assured a big role. The Cougar offense relied on a number of younger guys in 2018 and so it's not unrealistic to believe that investment will pay dividends. The junior should spearhead an o-line unit that is more consistent and makes fewer costly mistakes this fall.
No. 18: Chris Wilcox, Sr. DB
This BYU football team has some exciting young talent at cornerback but success maybe depend on how well the veteran leader does. Chris Wilcox has been a steady presence for the Cougars over the past few years. In 2018 he finished with 28 tackles, two tackles for a loss and two pass breakups in nine games. If he can stay healthy and help mold the other corners, his contribution this fall could be one of the most important to the success of the entire defense.
No. 19: Chris Petersen, Washington head coach
Of all of BYU’s 2019 opponents, there was one team that clearly had the best season last fall. Washington, the Pac 12 champs, suffered close losses to Auburn, Cal, Oregon and Ohio State but was still ranked in the Top 15. Now Huskies head coach Chris Petersen has to reload after losing a number of key contributors — but don’t expect Washington to take a step back. He’ll have his guys ready to again compete for a league title and be in the national picture, which will make it another big game when the Cougars host the Huskies on Sept. 21.
No. 20: Skylar Southam, So. K
How big is the kicking game in college football? BYU football fans probably remember just how costly a missed extra point early in last year's rivalry game at Utah changed everything down the stretch (since the Cougars were down 28-27 in the fourth quarter instead of tied, 28-28). Skyler Southam did a good job last year as he was 42-of-44 on PATs, 7-of-7 on field goals inside 40 yards and 4-of-9 on field goals beyond 40 yards. But BYU needs him (or Jake Oldroyd) to be an even greater weapon in 2019, ensuring the Cougars get points virtually every time they cross the opponent's 40-yard line.
No. 21: Lopini Katoa, So. RB
One of the more complex questions facing the BYU offense is how the running back situation will play out. Squarely in the thick of the discussion is Lopini Katoa, a sophomore who ended up leading the team with 423 yards on 76 carries with eight touchdowns. He did get hurt, however, and the Cougars added a couple of graduate transfers to the position as well. This could be a big year for Katoa -- or he could find himself buried on the depth chart with limited opportunities.
No. 22: Kyle Whittingham, Utah head coach
Every BYU fan wants to know if this will FINALLY be the year that Cougar football ends the frustrating losing streak to Utah but whether or not that happens, BYU season will very much be tied to what the Utes do. That first game always sets a tone as teams figure out how pieces come together, plus there is always the strength of schedule discussion if either team is doing well. Kyle Whittingham has done a solid job in Salt Lake City but there are definitely elevated expectations in 2019.
No. 23: Trajan Pili, Sr. DL/LB
If you are looking up and down the BYU football roster wondering who might be this year’s Sione Takitaki, you might want to stop on Trajan Pili. The junior played defensive end in 2018 (27 tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hurries) but might look to move to linebacker if that is where he is needed. His athleticism and versatility means he could be making plays just about anywhere in the front seven of the Cougar defense. Takitaki may have left big shoes but Pili is up to the challenge.
No. 24: Jaren Hall, Fr. QB
There is always tremendous buzz surrounding a starting quarterback heading into a season but savvy football fans know that a team's backup can be just as important. This year it looks like freshman Jaren Hall will be the athlete ready to take the reins if needed and he showed in the spring game some flashes of brilliance. He hasn't had a lot of actual on-field experience yet (just four rushes in two games for a total of four yards) but his four TD drives ast March and his innate athletic ability give him the chance to be used in a lot of ways by the Cougars this fall.
No. 25: Clay Helton, USC head coach
Few schools have the tradition and past success of USC and the result is that the Trojans are often in the mix for top recruits. Last year, however, that hasn't translated into a lot of wins on the field. USC was a Top 5 team in 2016 and a Top 10 team in 2017 but dropped in 5-7 last season and have a lot of question marks. Clay Helton knows that Trojan head coaches have to win to keep their jobs, so he's going to be dialing up everything he can to make sure his team has a bounce-back year -- which could be good or bad for BYU.
No. 26: Danny Jones, Jr. P
It gets said a lot but never underestimate the value of a good punter. BYU is likely to be in some dogfights this year as the Cougars go up against tough, physical opponents, so it might come down to Danny Jones to win the field-position battle. The Australian had eight punts in six games last year (averaging 38.8 yards with three inside the 20) but now steps into a bigger role. He needs to be able to pin opponents deep to give BYU’s defense the best chance to stop them.
No. 27: Bracken El-Bakri, Jr. DL
With others on the defensive line getting more attention, the contributions of Bracken El-Bakri have likely been undervalued. His numbers in 2018 were solid: 24 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and one forced fumble in eight starts. This is an athlete with a high motor who will give it his all on every play. Don’t be surprised if he plays a big role in disrupting opposing run games.
No. 28: Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Sr. TE
When Moroni Laulu-Pututau got hurt last year, it changed everything for the BYU offense. That's the impact this senior can have as he gets ready for one final year in Provo. He is a dangerous receiver (14 receptions, 120 yards, 1 TD in five games in 2018) but he can also block and be an effective decoy. If he is 100 percent and rises to his potential, he is going to be a huge asset to the Cougars this fall.
No. 29: Chaz Ah You, So. LB
This might be the biggest darkhorse candidate on the entire list but I'm confident in what Chaz Ah You can become. Yes, the former Westlake and Timpview star only played in seven games as a freshman in 2017 (nine total tackles, one tackle for a loss) but this is a gifted athlete who appears primed to work himself into the linebacker rotation. Don't be surprised if he turns into this year's Isaiah Kaufusi who starts making consistent plays.
No. 30: Aleva Hifo, Sr. WR
I start the 2019 edition of my annual BYU football Countdown to Camp with a veteran who has already proven he can be a major contributor. Aleva Hifo was the second-leading receiver for the Cougars in 2018 (28 receptions, 358 yards, 2 TDs), the sixth-leading rusher (30 carries, 129 yards, 2 TDs) and had the best passer efficiency on the team at 690.4 (1-for-1, 31 yards, 1 TD). Expect him to be involved in the BYU offense early and often this fall.