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BYU football media day: Cougars trying to stay humble and hungry

Another BYU football media day came and went Wednesday, the last for the Cougars leading up to their final year of independence.

There was no major announcement, no brash predictions of how their final season before entering the Big 12 will go. Nothing of the sort. As half days go, it was rather bland and vanilla.

But one theme did emerge when the morning television show on the state of the program concluded and the coaches and players began talking individually to media members. In short, the Cougars said they can’t afford to rest on their laurels, after back-to-back 10-win seasons and a two-year record of 21-4.

“One of the biggest things is bouncing back after last year’s bowl game. We kinda fell asleep a little bit. It wasn’t a great way to end the season. We are carrying that forward as motivation.” — BYU receiver Gunner Romney

They are insisting they are still hungry, even though one goal of independence has been accomplished: membership in a Power Five conference.

“We are just keeping a chip on our shoulder,” said starting quarterback Jaren Hall, who is entering his fifth, and almost certainly final, season in Provo. “We are just remembering what it was like when we didn’t have great seasons, remembering what it took to get great seasons, and just keeping that same focus.”

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said that it is easier said than done, which is why he held a team meeting Tuesday when summer term classes began. In 2020, the Cougars were coming off a disappointing bowl loss to Hawaii and then saw one of the best schedules ever crumble due to COVID-19 cancellations. They went 11-1.

In 2021, they had lost almost all of their offensive production, including No. 2 draft pick Zach Wilson, and most of their defensive playmakers. People didn’t believe they could win against a Power Five-laden schedule. Yet they did, going 10-2 before inexplicably falling 31-28 to UAB in the Independence Bowl.

“What has made us good is having that chip on our shoulder thing,” Roderick said. “The COVID year, we all had something to prove that year and had a bad taste in our mouth from the way we ended the season the year before.

“Last year, we were the least amount of returning production in college football,” he continued. “And so the chip on our shoulder last year was just a bunch of unknown guys who needed to provide something.”

Now the Cougars have to deal with lofty expectations, and they know it. Receiver Gunner Romney, who returned after toying with the idea of ​​turning pro after the bowl game, said those expectations and more are keeping the Cougars hungry.

“One of the biggest things is bouncing back after last year’s bowl game. We kinda fell asleep a little bit. It wasn’t a great way to end the season,” he said. “We are carrying that forward as motivation, because we got a lot of kickback, a lot of grief from that. That was really frustrating for us.”

Speaking of the Cougar receivers, Roderick and Fesi Sitake confirmed that redshirt junior Keanu Hill has emerged as the WR3 behind Romney and junior Puka Nacua. And Roderick said redshirt freshman Jacob Conover won the battle to be Hall’s backup, and Cal transfer Chris Brooks has “earned” the right to be called RB1.

In other personnel-related news, defensive back Isaiah Herron has taken a medical retirement but will finish up his degree this summer. Also, offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga, who showed up at spring camp making a comeback from missing the entire 2021 season, is no longer on the team.

Head coach Kalani Sitake said it is “highly doubtful” that Saleapaga will return, while not divulging what is keeping him away.

Sitake agreed that coaches and players alike need to find other sources of motivation this season, because most of their production is back — sans all-everything running back Tyler Allgeier — and respect has come in droves in the offseason.

“Every year there are going to be different types of questions about our team,” Sitake said. “Last year it was, ‘How are we going to replace all the production that left?’ This year we have all this production coming back. We need to be as good as we possibly can. We need to make sure that our guys are ready to roll, and that we have good depth. So if we can get that done, I think we will have a good shot.”

Sitake said the Cougars are getting healthier by the day — particularly linebackers Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili and tight end Isaac Rex — and are “in a really good spot” in that regard going into preseason training camp in early August.

“If we would have had the same starters that played against Arizona, Utah and ASU, I think it would have been a really good season,” he said. “We had a good season. We had some really cool things happen, but it could have been better.”

Coaches have been able to spend up to eight hours a week, a maximum of two hours a day, with players this offseason, due to an NCAA rule change. Roderick said he’s been pleased with what he’s seen so far.

“This year, people expect us to be good. So we have to deal with handling success and we are trying to prove now that we aren’t just a one-year, two-year good offense, that we are going to be a team that is good every year,” Roderick said. “We don’t look past anybody. We stumbled a couple times last year in games we shouldn’t have lost. So now the challenge this year is to live up to expectations. That’s a different role than we have been in, but I embrace it and I expect us to be good, too. We have got to learn to handle it.”

Tight ends coach Steve Clark said this has the potential to be the deepest team BYU has had in the Sitake era and that he doesn’t think it will be a problem keeping this group hungry and motivated.

“I think success makes you want more success,” Clark said. “We ended last year not on a great note. And so we should be hungry. We have no excuse to not have that desire to be good again.”

Clark said the team has enough depth across the board that players can’t afford to get complacent.

“If you are not (motivated to improve), then you won’t play, because there are too many guys on this team that are,” he said. “There is too much depth on this team to let up and think, oh, we have made it. At any position, you can’t do that.”

At last year’s media day, a lot of the talk focused on ending the nine-game losing streak against Utah. The Cougars did that, winning 26-17 in Provo the day after they were extended an invitation to join the Big 12. The Utes aren’t on the schedule this year, but the focus remains the same, special teams coach and assistant head coach Ed Lamb said.

Finding new motivation “is the new challenge, because when you have a chip on your shoulder the natural motivation is to prove yourselves. I hope that we still will have that,” Lamb said, adding that the Cougars early season schedule should get the players’ attention.

BYU opens at South Florida on Sept. 3 knowing the Bulls gave it all it wanted last year in Provo. They host defending Big 12 champion Baylor the second week, then travel to the Pac-12’s Oregon in Week 3.

“I think we can appeal to the players’ pride that way,” Lamb said. “Also, we ended the season on a low note, particularly on defense, but overall as a team. We lost the bowl game.”

“If we would have had the same starters that played against Arizona, Utah and ASU, I think it would have been a really good season. We had a good season. We had some really cool things happen, but it could have been better.” — Kalani Sitake

Clearly, the Cougars haven’t forgotten that stumble in Shreveport that arguably made a great season just a good one.

“We are hungry to just provide ourselves, just like every year,” Nacua said. “Losing our bowl game after a really good season we were on, that is something that will drive us all the way to the first game when we land in Florida. … We didn’t show up and play our best football, and that still bugs us.”

In other media day revelations, BYU AD Tom Holmoe confirmed that the Big 12 will play nine conference games in 2023 when the Cougars join. Holmoe also said that BYU is “very close to a contract, we basically have an agreement” with a third nonconference opponent in 2023 after Tennessee bought out the scheduled visit to Provo.

Holmoe said the unnamed opponent “will fit into the schedule well” with Southern Utah and Arkansas.

BYU quarterback Jaren Hall laughs during a media interview during BYU football media day in Provo on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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