BYU football: What is Kalani Sitake like after Cougars’ 11-win season?
This is the post-Jeff Grimes era and life after Kalani Sitake’s 11-1 nationally ranked COVID-19 season.
How is it working? What lies ahead?
Well, there are certain themes to the offensive side of things that are being pushed forward in the absence of projected future NFL first-round pick QB Zach Wilson. Sitake’s three-year campaign to emphasize “aggressive” play calls continues, as does an overall emphasis on making the experience unbridled fun.
His first cousin, Fesi Sitake, coaches receivers and in both his team room and coach gatherings, Fesi finds a way to make others laugh. He’s a prime-time jokester who finds an angle and uses it. He pokes fun, calls out foibles. He gains this license, he says, because he makes fun of himself all the time, be it his weight, his size or just about any liability he owns.
Fesi is the perfect contrast to Kalani. One has to be the stoic leader, the other can do “Saturday Night Live” skits behind the scenes for laughs. Fesi’s sarcasm, quick wit and one-liners are a good balance.
It is the nature of both Kalani and Fesi to look beyond football for the answers on how to make it tick. It must be enjoyable.
Both Kalani and Fesi are huge Utah Jazz fans. Kalani goes to many Jazz games, and Fesi has a Twitter Jazz presence with other major pro sports social media flares here and there. Who is the bigger Jazz fan?
“Well, we’re both gonna say ourselves,” said Fesi. “We are right there, we’re neck and neck, we’re the same, but we’re both gonna say we’re the bigger Jazz fan. He probably will take the nod because he’s been a Jazz fan longer because he’s like 80 years old.”
And yes, both Fesi and Kalani believe the Jazz were disrespected in that loss at Philadelphia and in the All-Star Game draft. Did Utah get hosed at Philly?
“Absolutely. No ifs, ands or buts. It’s not like I try to fault the officials, but that was pretty extreme,” said Fesi.
Roderick in control
The Cougars’ offense, now led by Aaron Roderick, hopes to keep its hot streak alive. It was Roderick’s added touch that cultivated one of the most productive point-scoring tight ends in school history (Isaac Rex, 12 TDs), the most accurate passer in school history for a season and career (Wilson), a 1,000-yard receiver (Dax Milne) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Tyler Allgeier).
It won’t be easy. Critics say BYU’s 2020 success came at the hand of a weak substitute schedule, that Wilson’s numbers were inflated, BYU’s offense given a greased lane. Others will praise Roderick for his play calling in the Boca Raton blowout bowl win and say he has what it takes to build an offense both mentally and emotionally.
The 2021 schedule features games against Arizona State, Arizona, Utah, Baylor, Washington State, Utah State in Logan, Boise State, Bronco Mendenhall’s Virginia, and Pac-12 South champion USC.
BYU will miss Grimes’ experience and steadiness in stabilizing and challenging the offensive line, his forte. And the losses of Wilson, Milne and left tackle Brady Christensen loom large for the offense.
It was Fesi Sitake who first recognized the talents of Wilson and Milne while recruiting at Weber State, evaluating their talents at camps and games.
The 2021 season will be a lot about seeing others develop.
Recent recruiting rankings show BYU prospects average rank is in the 70s — for a lot of reasons — and it is no secret Kalani Sitake runs a developmental program with holes in signing classes due to missionary service.
The lack of four- and five-star talent presents BYU’s staff with a challenge to produce Wilsons and Milnes and Christensens, all of whom have been invited to the NFL combine.
Don’t tell Wilson or Milne they aren’t good, they just wanted to play and prove. That’s the puddle from which BYU spawns its players. When asked if he would be interested in taking any receivers from the transfer portal Fesi said, “I’m open to that, if they are in the portal.” The rules prohibit him from commenting publicly on specific recruits.
Days later, BYU got commitments from two huge transfer portal prospects in Washington receiver Puka Nacua and his brother Samson, at Utah. Looking for more opportunities, needing to be close to home and an ailing grandmother, graduates from Orem and Timpview high schools in Utah Country, the Sitake family team nest had an attraction and it paid off. Both are huge additions. Puka was rated one of the top receivers in the nation in high school.
“I’ve been really encouraged by a lot of these young guys,” said Fesi in a post-practice interview, answering the question about the general observation concerning spring football practices.
“They’re players who we are excited to see how they develop and they’ve done a lot of really good things on both sides of the ball,” he said.
“I mean the competition is great, there’s not really ever been a practice in (the first three) practices where one side of the ball has completely dominated, which is just a sign of a well-rounded, polished team and the competitive spirit of the guys. They’re excited to be out here. There are just really good vibes out here, a lot of clean football, good execution.”
BYU’s offense will do without one full-time coach on that side of the ball as Kalani has opted to give that advantage to the defense. The NCAA allows nine full-time coaches and the offense had five last year with Grimes helping OL coach Eric Mateos (now with Grimes at Baylor) as part of his offensive coordinator duties.
BYU’s new offensive line coach is veteran collegiate coach Darrell Funk. Graduate assistant Spencer Patterson, who has been at BYU helping since 2019, will assist Funk. Patterson has experience at Louisiana Tech and Eastern Kentucky.
Life after Mateos
Fesi likes the addition of Funk, who is different from Grimes in some ways.
“He’s awesome. He’s been a great addition. He’s got an awesome personality. He’s a reserved guy, but when he’s on the field he can get feisty and get on his guys when he needs to. He is a great teacher, full of knowledge. He’s been an awesome addition. It’s been fun to to coach with him over these last couple weeks.”
Last summer, Grimes, Roderick and the other offensive staff took what they had and retooled the entire offense. By the time the Cougars opened up at Navy, Grimes said it was almost a completely different offense. It underwent a pruning process, simplifying concepts and utilizing the same plays out of different formations.
What Roderick is doing now with Funk and the rest of the staff this spring is simply polishing.
“It’s perfecting what we’ve already done so well, not trying to reinvent things and make wholesale changes in other areas. It’s executing what we do really well, and now we can take the next step. Instead of implementing new plays, we might just have some new stuff here and there, little wrinkles.
“Instead of new plays, we’re just finding new ways to run those plays, wrinkles that can dress things up and make it harder for the defense. But we’re really confident in the scheme and the playbook we have going right now,” said Fesi.
Kalani’s 11-1 finish in 2020 can be built up or torn down as much as folks want to engage in it and all can make their cases. But that team was ranked, found itself in the national discussion and produced one of the most talked about QBs in the country.
The one thing that nobody can subtract from that year is how it felt on the team.
That is in the vault.
If there is one thing Kalani Sitake took away from 11 wins, it was something he already knew, said Fesi.
“One thing that was reassuring is just to have fun, to be grateful,” said the receivers coach.
“He’s so good about letting the team know every day, how blessed we are to play football and how much we should enjoy it and have fun. And I think that that’s a message. It’s easy to understand, but you often forget it sometimes when you get in the grind of football, whether it be spring ball or camp or the season.
“Kalani does a really good job of that. Last year was the most fun season he’s had as a coach,” Fesi said. “It was just more reassurance that we got to take advantage of the opportunity we had to be involved and be a part of this game.
“I think he also did a great job at continually learning how to delegate and get assistance with his responsibilities. He’s so good at that and I think he got confirmation that he’s been a great manager.
“Obviously he’s got a hand in all of our schemes and what we do and he voices his opinion. But he’s done a really good job at sitting back and trusting the coaches and it’s been awesome to watch and learn how he handles that role as a head coach.”
The 11-1 Kalani is in the thick of trying to prepare for a bear of a 2021 season. He won’t get 11 wins against this schedule, but if he can make some noise, continue a trajectory, it will go a long way to proving himself as a head coach in search of fun and gratitude for the chance.