New faces, new league bring new expectations as BYU nears Big 12 era

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PROVO — For most of his collegiate career, BYU defensive end Tyler Batty walked into the locker room and looked around to a whole bunch of familiar faces.

From Jaren Hall to Zach Wilson, Gunner Romney to Puka Nacua, and James Empey to Blake Freeland, the core of the roster remained intact from year to year. Not anymore for the junior from Payson, whose team has 37 new faces dotting the lineup between transfers, returning missionaries and incoming freshmen.

"There are a ton of new guys, honestly," Batty said Monday after the Cougars initiated their first practice of a Big 12 Conference they will formally join July 1. "The past couple of months, I was able to learn a lot of new names and known new guys. I've been around the program since 2019, and for a while there were a lot of the same guys that I knew.

"It's really interesting to look at our locker room, and none of those guys are in there. But it's been fun getting to know all the new guys."

On the first day of spring practices, all eyes were on new quarterback Kedon Slovis, the former USC signal caller and Pitt transfer who took No. 1 snaps under center.

Even if offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick hadn't told media that would be the case for the graduate transfer in his final season of eligibility, junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff's recovery from an offseason tonsillectomy made it even more apparent that Slovis will get every opportunity to be "the guy" ahead of a group that also includes returning quarterbacks Nick Billoups and Cade Fennegan.

That may also be the case at running back with Aidan Robbins, the former 1,000-yard rusher at UNLV from Louisville who is finishing out his eligibility with BYU after telling the Cougars no twice before committing in December. Robbins will be limited, at best, in spring practices while he recovers from wrist surgery.

But his presence on the sideline highlights that these aren't he same Cougars from years past, Same with a dozen other newcomers, including former FCS All-American cornerback Eddie Heckard, Boise State pass rusher Isaiah Bagnah, Utah interior lineman Paul Maile, and a bevy of returned missionaries like freshman safety Raider Damuni.

Add in freshman quarterback Ryder Burton and Corner Canyon walk-on Cole Hagen, who committed to Yale before serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and there might as well be a full-time placard for name tags in the Cougars' practice facility.

"We've had so much continuity the last few years, this is the first time we've had three new quarterbacks," Roderick said. "It takes time to get chemistry and timing down for everyone. I think for the most part, we don't have a lot of missed assignments. But we lack execution."

The new faces around the program only accentuates the new feeling around the school as it prepares to join its first Power Five conference, a step up from a decade of independence to weekly competition in the Big 12.

The Cougars haven't competed for a conference title in 12 years, so no player — no matter the COVID exception or length of their mission — has had that chance. And with that opportunity comes a new sense of urgency.

BYU may not knock off defending Big 12 champion Kansas State or College Football Playoff runner-up TCU right away, or even league bell cows Texas and Oklahoma in their final year before joining the SEC. But that doesn't shorten the new expectations.

In the spring, everyone wants to win a conference championship.

"It's just natural," BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. "The season's coming, and we know our schedule. There's already a sense of urgency to get the guys ready. I didn't have to do anything about it; they see the schedule, and they understand the competition.

"It's easy to see that we need to be better than we've ever been. And that starts day one."

Other changes were scattered across the spring roster, as well, like new positions for New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters (running back) and former running back Mason Fakahua (tight end). The Cougars' support staff is also delineating "defensive ends" and "defensive tackles," as well as "cornerbacks" and "safeties" rather than "defensive backs" now, as well — though that's a detail likely only noticed by the team's local beat reporters and broadcasters.

BYU quarterback Ryder Burton and running back Enoch Nawahine practice during opening day of BYU spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo, on Monday, March 6, 2023.
BYU quarterback Ryder Burton and running back Enoch Nawahine practice during opening day of BYU spring football camp at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo, on Monday, March 6, 2023. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Here's a look at several new names, positions and numbers from the most recent spring roster:

  • No. 3 — Aidan Robbins, RB, UNLV (Louisville, Ky.)
  • No. 5 — Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, RB, St. John's College HS (Hau'ula, Hawai'i)
  • No. 5 — Eddie Heckard, DB, Weber State (Las Vegas, Nevada)
  • No. 10 — Kedon Slovis, QB, Pittsburgh (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
  • No. 12 — Jake Retzlaff, QB, Riverside City College (Corona, Calif.)
  • No. 13 — Isaiah Bagnah, DE, Boise State (Lethbridge, Alberta)
  • No. 16 — Isaiah Glasker, LB, Bingham HS (South Jordan, Utah)
  • No. 16 — Cole Hagen, QB, Corner Canyon HS (Draper, Utah)
  • No. 17 — Preston Rex, S, San Clemente HS (San Clemente, Calif.)
  • No. 18 — Ryder Burton, QB, Springville HS (Springville, Utah)
  • No. 18 — Ace Kaufusi, LB, Kahuku HS (Kahuku, Hawai'i)
  • No. 20 — Nukuleve Helu, RB, Tooele HS (Tooele, Utah)
  • No. 22 — Mason Fakahua, TE, Cedar HS (Cedar City, Utah)
  • No. 26 — Morgan Pyper, RB, Hillcrest HS (Idaho Falls, Idaho)
  • No. 27 — Marcus McKenzie, DB/WR, Pine View HS (St. George, Utah)
  • No. 28 — Tanner Wall, S, Yorktown HS (Arlington, Va.)
  • No. 29 — Jayden Dunlap, CB, Cerritos College (Carson, Calif.)
  • No. 30 — Quenton Rice, CB, Faith Lutheran HS (Las Vegas, Nev.)
  • No. 32 — Ty Burke DB, Syracuse HS (Syracuse, Utah)
  • No. 32 — Chase Hopkins, RB, Olympus HS (Holladay, Utah)
  • No. 33 — Raider Damuni, S, Timpview HS (Provo, Utah)
  • No. 34 — Maika Kaufusi, LB, Alta HS (Cottonwood Heights, Utah)
  • No. 35 — Ale Anderson, WR, Herriman HS (Herriman, Utah)
  • No. 39 — Landon Rehkow, K/P, Central Valley HS (Verdale, Wash.)
  • No. 39 — Jack Skidmore, CB, Park City HS (Park City, Utah)
  • No. 41 — Lamese Patterson, LB, Banning HS (Banning, Calif.)
  • No. 42 — Petey Tuipulotu, S, Nation Ford HS (Fort Mill, S.C.)
  • No. 44 — Will Ferrin, K, Boise State (Kaysville, Utah)
  • No. 47 — Kyle Vassau, LB, Carlsbad HS (Carlsbad, Calif.)
  • No. 48 — Bodie Schoonover, DE, American Fork HS (American Fork, Utah)
  • No. 49 — Nason Coleman, TE, Chandler HS (Chandler, Ariz.)
  • No. 49 — Lucky Finau, LB, Alta HS (Sandy, Utah)
  • No. 50 — Kason Krebs, LB, Southern Utah (Sunset Beach, Hawai'i)
  • No. 54 — Paul Maile, OL, Utah (Salt Lake City)
  • No. 56 — Nuuletau Sellesin, DE, Weber State (Woods Cross, Utah)
  • No. 61 — Weylin Lapuaho, OL, Utah State (South Jordan, Utah)
  • No. 63 — Mac Aloisio, DT, Timpview HS (Provo, Utah)
  • No. 65 — Ian Fitzgerald, OL, Missouri State (Hawthorn Woods, Ill.)
  • No. 77 — Jake Griffin, OL, Red Mountain HS (Mesa, Ariz.)
  • No. 79 — Kaden Chidester, OL, Richfield HS (Richfield, Utah)
  • No. 80 — Koa Eldredge, WR, Punahou HS (Honolulu, Hawai'i)
  • No. 88 — Devin Downing, WR, American Fork HS (American Fork, Utah)
  • No. 91 — Jackson Cravens, DT, Boise State (Provo, Utah)
  • No. 98 — Wyatt Dawe, DT, Southern Utah (Pleasant Grove, Utah)

Roderick said the first day of practice looked like … well, "Day 1," including typical mistakes of a group working in 37 new players and a new defensive staff led by defensive coordinator Jay Hill.

But through the mistakes, each player and coach understands the new expectations on the program.

"I think everybody in this place knows what we're up against this year," Roderick said. "I think that all of us feel like there aren't a lot of Big 12 teams that are afraid of us right now. We've got to go earn respect, and that starts with making the most of every rep every day."


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