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Poor air quality forcing changes to football programs in Utah County, including BYU

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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PROVO — There was a gray haze over the Provo area Friday morning.

And no, that's not a reference to BYU football coming off a 4-9 season.

With fires raging across the state — most notably in the nearby Coal Hollow fire and Hill Top fire in Sanpete County — head coach Kalani Sitake has had to make several adjustments to his team’s fall camp preparations for the Sept. 1 season opener at Arizona.

With the smoke, KSL's Air Quality Network forecasted sensitive-to-unhealthy air in most of the county — including very unhealthy ranges around the Springville bench, Spanish Fork Canyon and Payson areas.

"It's not healthy right now, so we’ll adjust our plans just as if it were a lightning issue," Sitake said. "But the goals are trying to get everything done and prep for our scrimmage. We’ll get some light work, and hopefully be able to do more Monday.

"We'd like to go outside, but until they tell me I can, we’ll just have to adjust."

While the relocation of football practices is nothing compared to the evacuations and life-saving measures put in by firefighters every day, it is posing a few unique challenges for the Cougars.

The players haven’t noticed much, though. While it would be helpful to acclimatize to the heat in preparation for the road opener in Tucson, Arizona — weekend temperatures projected highs of 98 degrees when the area wasn’t submerged by monsoons — it’s more important to not have to breathe in the sickly air brought on by the wildfires.

"I would rather be outside, but I also would like better air," tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau said. "It makes my lungs burn.

"Your lungs kind of go out, so I'm glad they are watching out for us."

BYU isn’t the only football team in Utah County forced to make adjustments, either. Spanish Fork announced Friday the cancellation of its annual red-and-gray scrimmage, which typically signals the close proximity of the high school football season in the community, and other schools have followed suit — either canceling, postponing or moving previously planned scrimmages indoors.

In addition, Springville, Payson, Salem Hills, Maple Mountain and Provo all announced postponements or cancellations to their intrasquad scrimmages, according to school officials.

The first kickoff of the 2018 Utah High School Activities Association football season is Thursday, Aug. 16, when defending Class 4A state champion Orem hosts 6A champ Bingham at 7 p.m. MT.

The Coal Hollow fire has burned nearly 18,000 acres since it started Aug. 4, according to Utah Fire Info.

With little relief in sight, the Cougars will move their previously planned closed scrimmage Saturday into the Indoor Practice Facility on campus, as well.

"We're fine," Sitake said. "Our school has done a great job getting a new turf on this (indoor) field, and we have a lot of space. We can get everything accomplished in here."

Wildfire Updates

Live work

Sitake isn’t sure if the quarterbacks, including senior Tanner Mangum and freshman Zach Wilson who seem to be edging ahead of sophomore Joe Critchlow in practice reps, will be live and fully tackle-able Saturday.

But quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said the physicality will be close to a full-game scenario.

"It won't be live, but it will be close," said Roderick, who admitted Saturday's scrimmage will go a long way toward deciding the team's starter for 2018. "We will let the defense get to the quarterbacks, but not tackle them."

Looking forward

BYU opens at Arizona in three weeks, and though coaches haven’t immediately begun preparing for the Wildcats, the players have been keeping one eye on the Sept. 1 start date for a while.

“I think it’s just motivation for everyone,” Laulu-Pututau said. “That’s what we are working for, since the last game last year. It’s the next game, and that’s the one we want.”

Sitake said the official game prep begins after the third scrimmage of fall camp, about eight days before kickoff.

But could some guys sneak in a few extra glances in that direction before then? BYU linebacker Zayne Anderson admitted it’s possible.

"I think as a group, we’re focused on improving ourselves right now," Anderson said. "But in the back of my head, it’s definitely there.

"It’s nice to get a few weeks ahead and watch them, for sure."

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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.


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