June 30, 2016
New football head coach Kalani Sitake during football media day. (Ari Davis)
BYU football held its annual media day on June 30 – the first media day under new head coach Kalani Sitake and his staff. Coaches and players addressed the upcoming schedule, schematic changes, the Big 12, Taysom Hill v Tanner Mangum and much more.
Sitake was hired in Dec. 2015 and quickly made an impact on BYU campus. He was spotted in the student section at basketball games, featured on the video boards dancing and helped organize a number of BYU FanFests throughout the summer. He seemingly reinvigorated recruiting in Provo and is attempting to make the football team feel like a family.
But when the Cougars’ season begins on Sept. 3 in Phoenix, the first-year head coach will have his work cut out for him. Although Sitake isn’t worried.
“(There’s) not a lot of surprises,” Sitake said of what lies ahead for him. “But it’s been an honor to be in this position.”
Some had questioned Sitake’s hiring – Sports Illustrated gave the move a “C” – but former BYU center and current ESPN college football analyst Trevor Matich thought the hire was a brilliant one.
“(Sitake) played for LaVell Edwards. He served a mission. That’s part of the genius of hiring coach Sitake,” Matich said. “Everything that the players are going through, he’s gone through.”
But one thing Sitake never went through is something that returning senior quarterback Taysom Hill knows all too well: returning from multiple season-ending injuries.
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is interviewed during media day. (Ari Davis)
The 6-foot-6 and 235 lb. quarterback opened his session with the media by quickly answering some commonly asked questions, saying that he’s recovered from his Lisfranc injury and has no physical limitations, he loves learning from and working with Ty Detmer and noted that his relationship with Tanner Mangum is a good one.
Hill was one of the biggest question marks for the team at the conclusion of 2015, as he began fielding graduate transfer offers from around the nation. Hill said he had “plenty of offers,” but returned because he’s a “BYU guy.”
With Hill’s return to Provo many have been and are continuing to wonder about who will start for the Cougars when they open their season. While nothing was confirmed – and the running joke is that Detmer will figure it out “sometime” before kickoff – Hill did say his return to BYU had to do with his role on the team.
“I expect (my role) to be like its always been,” Hill said. “That’s why I came back.”
Mangum, now a sophomore, insisted that the team isn’t viewing it as a “Team Taysom” or “Team Tanner” debate and added that he and Hill “have the same goals.”
Mangum has put on nearly 15 lbs. this offseason under strength and conditioning coach Nu’u Tafisi and described himself as feeling “confident” and “comfortable,” adding that his arm feels “stronger and a lot better.” He wasn’t sure who would be starting week one, but said he’s trusting the coaching staff.
Sophomore quarterback Tanner Mangum is interviewed at media day. Mangum said his relationship with Taysom Hill is a good one. (Ari Davis)
“I really don’t worry about it,” Mangum said. “I trust the coaches. They’ll decide what’s best.”
There’s been speculation that the Cougars might feature a dual-quarterback system, but that’s something Detmer said he won’t be utilizing in 2016.
“If we believe one of them is the guy… he’s going to get every opportunity to play and grow in the offense,” Detmer said. He added he’s not concerned with “what Arizona knows and what they don’t know.”
Joining Hill and Mangum in the backfield this season is senior running back Jamaal Williams. Williams left BYU in 2015, but returned to “finish” what he’s started in Provo.
He is expected to be the workhorse in a deep stable of running backs that BYU will feature this season. Algie Brown is moving to fullback, but will get the occasional play call and the Cougars expect Squally Canada, Trey Dye and Riley Burt to all contribute in 2016.
Running backs coach Reno Mahe is ecstatic about his group of players.
“I think I must’ve done something really nice before I got this job,” Mahe said. “Because I’ve been very blessed. It’s kind of cheating, but I’ll take it how they give it to me.”
Jamaal Williams fields questions during football media day. (Ari Davis)
Mahe added that a balanced running attack is an identity the team wants to establish and that they’ll rely heavily on Williams – a player Mahe said has “big time” NFL potential – to do so.
But a ball carrier is nothing without an offensive line. The Cougars were extremely thin at offensive line during spring ball, carrying just nine healthy linemen. O-line coach Mike Empey said he’ll have 17 linemen on scholarship when fall camp arrives, including Tejan Koroma, who is returning after an Honor Code violation.
Even with the return of Koroma, Empey isn’t totally pleased with where his group is at and didn’t mince words when asked about the kind of players he wants.
“We need to be tougher than what we are right now,” Empey said. “We need more of a ‘tough guy’ mentality. We need to be nastier… I don’t have a lot of patience for soft play.”
There have been rumors that Koroma may move to guard, but Empey didn’t comment on any potential changes. Rather, he reiterated that it was his job to “find the best lineup.”
Defensively, the Cougars are transitioning from the 3-4 defense that was synonymous with Bronco Mendenhall and his staff, to a 4-3 defense.
The change means more pressure will be generated by the defensive line and the coverage will be predominantly man-to-man.
When asked what he wanted to see out of his defense, defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said he expects “tough competitors that show up when the game is on the line.”
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki answers questions at media day. (Ari Davis)
Defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi added that he wants his linemen to “be fearless” in the trenches to make plays.
Behind the line, the coverage scheme shifts to man-to-man. Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford was pleased with what he’s seen from the secondary thus far, but said there are still wrinkles that need to be ironed out.
“There are definitely a lot wrinkles we need to improve on,” Gilford said. “But guys are taking the right steps and moving in the right direction. So by the first game we should be good. The majority of the guys have taken the change well. It seems like they all wanted to do it. They’re all very excited about playing more man-to-man and guarding their guy.”
One of those corners excited to make the change is senior Michael Davis. Gilford said that Davis has locked down the No. 1 corner spot in the defense and added that he has NFL potential.
The No. 2 through No. 5 spots on the depth chart are a different story.
“No. 2 through No. 5 are literally up for grabs,” Gilford said.
Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford is interviewed at media day. (Ari Davis)
Gilford mentioned Dayan Lake, Akile Davis and Troy Warner as players that might potentially round out the depth chart, but also said he’s particularly excited to work with incoming freshmen Chris Wilcox and Isaiah Armstrong.
Off the field, BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe talked Big 12 expansion, BYU’s contract with ESPN and playing on prime time.
Holmoe said that BYU isn’t at the table in Big 12 expansion discussions, but he didn’t think that was a bad thing.
“The Big 12 has gone through this process very professionally,” Holmoe said. “They’re not wanting to make it a public discussion and it’s not in our best interest to be pushing the envelope and to be out there every, single day. They are well aware of what we’ve done and the stats and records speak for themselves.”
Some have speculated that BYU’s contract with ESPN could hurt their chances at getting into the Big 12, but Holmoe was quick to dismiss that notion.
“We have a great relationship with ESPN,” Holmoe said. “I think the BYUtv-ESPN relationship is really symbiotic. Both of those entities are supportive of us moving in that direction.”
Others have suggested that BYU’s policy on Sunday play could be a deal breaker. Holmoe said he doesn’t believe it would cause problems, but was adamant that BYU would never take the field on a Sunday, saying it’s something the university “holds very sacred.”
Holmoe also helped unveil game times for a half-dozen of BYU’s 2016 games.
The Cougars open on Sept. 3 against Arizona at 8:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1. The team then travels to Utah on Sept. 10 for a 5:30 p.m. start on Fox. BYU then returns to Provo on Sept. 17 for the home opener against UCLA at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN or ESPN2. BYU will play Toledo at home on Sept. 30 at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN2. The Cougars will host Mississippi State on Oct. 14 at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN. Finally, BYU will host SUU at 1 p.m. on Nov. 12 on BYUtv.
Tom Holmo during the State of the Program show at media day. (Ari Davis)
“It’s a little bit of a two-edged sword,” Holmoe said, referring to the late kickoff times. “We want exposure. We want access. We’ve gone across the country and tried to bring our team everywhere in the country and to all the different conferences and to play the best teams and storied programs, but to do that you have to sacrifice a little bit.”
There is undoubtedly a wave of optimism surrounding the program right now that will likely only increase as season approaches. New faces, old faces, new schemes and a schedule as difficult as any Power 5 schedule in the nation have combined to make the 2016 season as exciting as any in Provo.
For Sitake, it can’t get started quick enough.
“I’m ready to roll,” he said.
Nate Cunningham is the sports editor for the Daily Universe. He previously worked as a reporter covering the BYU basketball team. You can follow Nate on Twitter @NW_Cunningham