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PROVO — These Cougars know what they're doing.
A year after a season as impacted by injury as the 2021 campaign and with the returning production that tops most of college football — including quarterback Jaren Hall, wide receivers Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney and an offensive line that features NFL draft prospect Blake Freeland at left tackle — the BYU football team opened fall camp Thursday with a been-there, done-that mentality.
Can you blame them?
This wasn't your traditional opening day, unlike most "first days of school." Instead, the Cougars were already knee deep in offensive installation and scheme adjustments under offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, eager to improve on back-to-back 10-win seasons that ended with a sour taste after last year's Independence Bowl loss to UAB.
And yet, the group is as far ahead as head coach Kalani Sitake can remember in his six years leading the program.
"We started that in the spring and in player-run practices," said Sitake, who will guide BYU into its final season as an FBS independent on Sept. 3 at South Florida. "The install is probably more than we've ever done on Day 1.
"Assignment-wise, I thought our guys did really well. But we need to focus on getting better technique."
So what are the objectives of fall camp? Is it to refine the offense, re-tool the defense, and determine a depth chart — most of which has already been determined, discussed and published?
Or is there a more important concern?
These players and coaches know one goal stands out above the rest.
"For me and for the guys who have been around, just staying healthy and then perfecting your craft," said linebacker Ben Bywater, the former Olympus standout who played three distinct linebacker roles a year ago due to injury. "It's so easy to go through the motions and not get better after coming off a good year. But for me, and I know for the other guys, it's just getting better every single day.
"We've always heard that cliche phrase, 1% better, and that for me is staying healthy and then getting better and getting prepared for Game 1."
Indeed, others confirmed that the most important objective is to stay healthy. It's no secret the Cougars struggled with injuries last year — and still finished out a 10-3 season, including wins over Power Five opponents Utah, Arizona State and USC, as well as Mountain West champion Utah State.
Injuries are going to follow in a sport as violent as football. But what BYU can't afford to do is lose any player before the games actually start.
With that in mind, both linebacker Chaz Ah You and defensive lineman Atunaisa Mahe spent the first day of practice nursing injuries on the sidelines. Others, like Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar, were available to practice but restricted to limited minutes and reps — the proverbial "pitch count," to borrow a baseball analogy.
"If guys aren't practicing today, then 90% of them are because they aren't cleared yet," Sitake said. "In Chaz's case, he's not ready to go and we aren't going to force it. We still have a month to go, we have some time, and we're going to work with our specialists to make sure he's ready to go."
Day 1 observations
The offense noticeably struggled during the media-viewing portion of practice, roughly the final 20 minutes of the day. That's also partially because the No. 1 receivers often rotated with Hall and the top-end offensive line — one that included Kingsley Suamataia rotating with Freeland at left tackle.
No cause for concern; it's the first day of practice, without pads even.
But several defensive players took advantage, including freshman Michael Daley. The newly returned missionary from Lone Peak hauled in an interception off a tipped pass early in the media viewing portion, and also had a touch-sack on another play with the reserves.
The depth at linebacker, with Pili, Wilgar and Bywater, may spill over to increased reps at the position for younger players like Daley.
"I'm going to be real: I really do believe in those guys," Bywater said. "I'm not just saying that; we got a lot of great guys. Obviously Max Tooley, and then Pepe Tanuvasa came back and is playing more as a linebacker. We've got Jackson Kaufusi, Tavita Gagnier and Morgan Pyper. And then we got a bunch of returned missionaries that have shown up: Bodie Schoonover, Tate Romney, Logan Pili … and then I'm sure I'm missing somebody."
As is usually the case on the first day of fall camp, several new faces dotted both the lineup and the practice field.
Here are other newcomers on BYU's roster, not including those who were available in spring practices like Cal transfer running back Chris Brooks:
- No. 11 Gabe Jeudy-Lally, CB (Vanderbilt)
- No. 15 Carter Krupp, DB (freshman)
- No. 28 Tanner Wall, WR (RS-freshman)
- No. 29 Korbyn Green, DB (freshman)
- No. 30 Kyson Hall, WR (freshman)
- No. 32 Tate Romney, LB (freshman)
- No. 33 Nathan Gillis, DB (freshman)
- No. 35 Zion Allen, DB (freshman)
- No. 36 Evan Johnson, DB (freshman)
- No. 38 Preston Rex, WR (freshman)
- No. 43 Micah Wilson, LB (freshman)
- No. 44 Michael Daley, LB (freshman)
- No. 48 Bodie Schoonover, LB (freshman)
- No. 50 Isaiah Perez, DL (freshman)
- No. 59 Logan Lutui, DL (Weber State)
- No. 61 Trevin Ostler, OL (freshman)
- No. 65 Talin Togiai, OL (freshman)
- No. 66 Sonny Makasini, OL (freshman)
- No. 68 Peter Falaniko, OL (freshman)
- No. 72 Sione Veikoso, OL (Arizona State)
- No. 73 Vae Soifua, OL (freshman)
- No. 82 Parker Kingston, WR (freshman)
- No. 85 Anthony Olsen, TE (freshman)
- No. 86 Dom Henry, DB (freshman)
- No. 96 Bruce Mitchell, OL (freshman)