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Bullseye: BYU Cougars

At the halfway mark of the 2019 season, the Bulls will host BYU. Despite a tough schedule, the Cougars are hoping to level up with a dynamic sophomore taking snaps at QB.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Western Michigan v BYU Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Previous Bullseye Opponent Primers:

At the halfway point of the of the 2019 season, USF football will break from American Athletic Conference play for a week to host an independent from the west who’s hoping that the combo of depth in key areas and a young quarterback on the rise will lead to better results this fall.

BYU Cougars

Narrative

The Kalani Sitake era at Brigham Young has been, well, a mixed bag of results.

Following a 9-4 season in Sitake’s first year at the helm in 2016, the usually consistent Cougars collapsed to 4-9 in 2017, the program’s first losing season since 2004. Shaking things up on the coaching staff, including canning school legend and 1990 Heisman trophy winner Ty Detmer as offensive coordinator, the Cougs bounced back with a respectable 7-6 season last fall.

And even that was all over the place.

A 3-1 start, highlighted by a 24-21 road upset of then No. 6 Wisconsin, was followed by back-to-back blowout losses to Washington and Utah State. A pair of one-score losses to Northern Illinois and Boise State were followed by beatdowns of UMass and New Mexico State. And following their eighth straight loss to bitter Holy War rival Utah to end the regular season, BYU ended the year on a high with a 49-18 thumping of Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Even with a tough national slate as an independent, there’s optimism in Provo that the Cougs could take another step forward this fall and it starts under center.

Personnel

Recently dubbed by Banner Society’s Richard Johnson as “Mormon Johnny Manziel”, second-year QB Zach Wilson steps into the pocket as BYU’s starter after impressing as a true freshman last fall.

Taking over for Tanner Mangum and starting the final seven games for the Cougs, Wilson completed 66% of his passes, throwing for 1,578 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. His coming out party came in the Potato Bowl, where he went a perfect 18-of-18 through the air for 317 yards and four touchdowns.

Sidelined by shoulder surgery in the spring, Wilson is back in fall camp and ready to go. Second-year offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes described his progression.

“He’s so much further along in his knowledge of the game, knowledge of the offense, quickness and decision making,” Grimes said of his dual-threat QB. “I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen from him so far.”

Wilson will be protected by a battle tested offensive line as left tackle Brady Christensen, center FWAA freshman All-American center James Empey and right guard Tristen Hoge started all 13 games last year on the line last season.

In the skill position department, there’s an abundance of options to choose from in both the running back and receivers department. Lopini Katoa returns as BYU’s leading rusher from last season and will be joined by the likes of Rice transfer Emmanuel Esukpa and South Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams.

An army of wideouts who caught at least 10 passes for BYU are back, a list that includes Talon Shumway, Micah Simon, Gunner Romney, Aleva Hifo and Dax Milne. Big 6’5”, 245 pound junior Matt Bushman will have to shoulder the load at tight end after promising redshirt freshman Hank Tiupulotu tore his ACL in fall camp and Moroni Laulu-Pututau is still awaiting to be cleared from his ACL injury.

On defense, the Cougars will have to replace the production of third-round NFL Draft pick Sione Takitaki, who led the team with 118 tackles at linebacker last year and defensive end Corbin Kaufusi in Saints camp, who had 8.5 sacks.

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki will rely on end Trajan Pili and nose Khyiris Tonga to provide veteran leadership on the line. In the middle at linebacker, Isaiah Kaufusi and Zayne Anderson are expected to start on the boundaries while an ongoing battle is taking place to determine who will replace Takitaki in the middle.

Experience reigns in the BYU defensive backfield as Troy Warner (21 starts) and Austin Lee (12 starts) return at safety while Chris Wilcox (16 starts) and Dayan Ghanwoloku will return to corner.

With 31 starts under his belt, Ghanwoloku has racked up 101 solo tackles, five interceptions and five fumble recoveries in three years in Provo. His story coming from war-torn Liberia to Utah as a child is a highly recommended read.

Outlook

While depth in key areas and a highlight producing quarterback are reasons to reasons to get excited about this BYU team, their performance in a loaded front half of the schedule will determine where this team stands physically and mentally heading into Tampa in mid-October.

Opening with rival Utah, whom many have labeled as the Pac-12 South favorite and a potential playoff darkhorse, the Cougs will travel to Tennessee before hosting Pac-12 bluebloods Washington and USC in back-to-back weeks at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Even a trip to perennial MAC contender will prove challenging on Sept. 28.

If things break the right way for Sitaki and company early, BYU could have confidence and momentum heading into the second half of the season. If they stumble against their four power five foes to open the season, the potential to miss a bowl is a possibility with Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State still on the schedule. We’ll see what frame of mind the Cougars will be in when the Bulls welcome them to Raymond James Stadium.