When asked on Wednesday after the first day of BYU football fall camp about whether he was wanting to test his surgically-repaired shoulder by getting hit, Cougar sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson had a quick response.
“Not yet, no,” Wilson said with a grin. “Honestly I would rather wait until the first game.”
With facing one of the most daunting four-game starts in the entire nation (Utah, at Tennessee, USC and Washington), BYU has to be prepared for the rigorous pounding that is in store.
But does that mean putting in extra live work to develop that bruising mentality?
Or does it mean not hitting as often since fall-camp injuries could limit the depth chart before the games even begin?
Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake said it’s going to be about finding the right balance and he expects to adjust those decisions as camp progresses.
“A lot of the physical part has happened in the offseason with the guys working so hard,” Sitake said. “Being physical is a mindset. I think our guys are physical, so my job is to make sure we have these guys trained up. It’s going to be physical no matter what but I’m not sure how much physicality we’re going to have in fall camp.”
He said that if he feels like his guys need to go live to get better, he’ll do that. He also knows the dangers.
“I’m not afraid to line it up and let these guys hit each other but I’m also a coach that cares about his players,” Sitake said. “I know the effect of hitting with concussions and things like that. That’s going to play into what we do and the decision I make as the head coach. I think right now we are focused on execution, being healthy and letting guys compete.”
Wilson said that he sees the Cougars valuing the decision-making part of football more than just beating each other up here early in fall camp.
“As a quarterback, I don’t get hit anyway so it is live for me right now,” Wilson said. “This is where the mental side of the game comes in, figuring out what coverages the other team is running, when to break certain routes off, how we’re supposed to block certain schemes.”
He explained that the Cougars are following the NFL model of not actually bringing guys down to the ground a lot.
“You can play live until the ball gets there and then your natural reaction will come as a player,” Wilson said. “A lot of these guys know how to hit, know how to go up and play 50-50 balls. Football is more of a mental game now and what we are doing is getting guys ready.”
In the trenches, football is always going to be physically demanding even if the players aren’t wearing pads.
“You have to play as fast and as hard as you can with the best technique and take care of each other,” Cougar sophomore offensive lineman James Empey said Friday. “Nobody is taking any cheap shots out here but when you are going against Zo (Lorenzo Fauatea) and Khyiris (Tonga) and Devin (Kaufusi) and Zac (Dawe) and all those guys on the defensive line, you’ve got to be tough if you want to compete. You have to compete and go hard but take care of each other when you can.”
He believes that both the BYU offensive and defensive lines will be fully prepared to battle when the season gets here.
Some of that confidence comes from what the team did during the last seven months since the 2018 season ended.
“So many of our guys have gained weight, gotten faster and stronger,” Wilson said. “It plays a critical role when it comes to gameday. At practice, you want to maintain your players. You don’t want to throw them out there and have them get hurt or get rolled on. We have big, strong, fast guys but we want to preserve them until the first game. They are ready for the contact, whether they get it now or in that first game.”