PROVO — A little more than two months since BYU beat Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl to finish with a 9-4 record in coach Kalani Sitake’s first season, the Cougars are eager to open spring football practices Monday.
“I think ending the season with a quality, hard-fought win is something that carries a lot of momentum into the offseason,” said assistant head coach Ed Lamb. “I think our players are responding well to coach Sitake’s style of doing things. I would characterize that as putting a lot of trust in the players and giving them all of the support we can give them. Right now, we have a very motivated team that’s also self-disciplined.”
BYU will hold one of its spring practice sessions in St. George (March 17) and the Spring Scrimmage will be played at 1 p.m. on March 25 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The final practice, on March 31, will be held in conjunction with Alumni Day.
Here are five things to look for during the Cougars’ spring practices:
• Less competition, more fundamentals.
When the new coaching staff took over a year ago, it was still getting acquainted with the players while installing a new offense and a new defense.
This year’s approach will be somewhat different.
“It’s going to be about fundamental improvement, scheme mastery and the efforts toward those two things,” Lamb said. “For example, last year we needed to get to know the roster, and we did a lot of competitive situations. We’ll put a de-emphasis on some of the competition on most of our practice dates so we can shift some of that emphasis toward getting better with our fundamentals and our techniques and sticking with the same schemes that were new a year ago. Now, at least for the majority of the team, it will be review.”
Tanner Mangum hands off during practice with the Brigham Young University football team in Provo on Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Quarterback Tanner Mangum started 12 games in 2015 and spent last season as the backup before starting in the bowl game. He is the undisputed starter heading into next fall.
De-emphasizing the day-to-day competition “builds a little safer environment for Tanner to go in and perform at a full-speed level,” Lamb said. “On the days where we need to allow the guys to play and make sure we’re blocking and tackling through the whistle, then I think most likely Tanner would play a limited role. He has plenty of game experience. He’s a proven commodity. The whole effort with Tanner is to improve him fundamentally and technically and have him ready for Game One.”
• Road trip to St. George.
BYU will be staging a spring practice session outside of Provo — 250 miles south in the balmier climes of St. George.
With some programs around the country holding satellite camps away from their campuses, BYU’s coach staff decided to travel to Dixie High School. That could provide many benefits, including the opportunity to interact with fans in that part of the state.
“We’re going to try to make the most out of the trip itself,” Lamb said, adding that there could be some team-bonding activities like swimming or fishing in order to allow the players to “enjoy some time together without the pressure of football other than that one practice.”
• Roster comings and goings.
The Cougars have lost a host of key seniors, like quarterback Taysom Hill, running back Jamaal Williams, defensive lineman Harvey Langi and defensive back Kai Nacua.
Oregon defensive lineman Wayne Tei-Kirby (71) prepares for a play during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. | Young Kwak, Associated Press
But BYU welcomes several returned missionaries, transfers and other newcomers, including Matt Bushman (TE), Austin Lee (DB), AJ Lolohea (DL), Keanu Saleapaga (DL), Wayne Tei-Kirby (DL), Ula Tolutau (RB), Earl Tuioti-Mariner (DL), Joe Tukuafu (TE) and Kody Wilstead (QB).
Meanwhile, Sione Takitaki, one of BYU’s top pass rushers, did not play last season for undisclosed reasons. While defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said last fall that Takitaki is expected to rejoin the team in 2017, he is not listed on the spring roster.
“Obviously, we’re pulling for him to be available for the fall and as early as possible for spring,” Lamb said of Takitaki.
• Position changes.
Sitake likes experimenting with players at different positions, and that is expected to continue this spring.
“Some of the position changes that we talk about are, at times, experimental and they go in phases. Initially, there’s a discussion,” Lamb said. “We’ve had discussions about probably at least a dozen and maybe two dozen guys on our team that maybe they’d be a better fit somewhere else.”
One player who is expected to be multi-tasking this spring, Lamb said, is Matt Hadley, who played in all 13 games last year as a defensive back but could be seeing reps at running back.
• Leadership development.
With BYU losing key senior leaders from last season, the coaches are looking for new leaders to emerge.
Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Fred Warner (4) celebrates with fans after BYU defeated Mississippi State 28-21 in overtime in Provo at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
“As a coaching staff, we’re hesitant to put the term ‘senior leader’ on anyone before the season actually gets here,” Lamb said. “Right now, we’re going with the natural leadership that already exists on the team.”
Mangum, linebacker Fred Warner and defensive back Micah Hannemann are among those Lamb pointed out as the leaders during the offseason.
“At the end of spring ball, we should have a much clearer picture of who our seniors will be in terms of that leadership,” Lamb said.