BYU football recruiting success depends on coaches’ hard work
If you guessed that the bye week was tough on the BYU football program, you’d be right.
A 1-3 start and one of the lowest-rated offenses in the country can put a dark cloud over any college football program.
But you still have to recruit.
There are two things BYU fans can always get behind: One is preseason hype and the other is recruiting.
Hope springs eternal in both.
While grad assistants and players ran much of practice during the bye week, Kalani Sitake and his coaches were out on the recruiting trail. They were visiting players who have already committed to the Cougars, telling them they can help with the revival. They were visiting new recruits, telling them that the BYU experience is still unique and rewarding.
A few weeks ago a recruit who had been offered a scholarship by BYU posted his official letter on Twitter. The letter is signed by Sitake and hits some key points for the recruit’s consideration and gives some insight into the main selling points of the program.
• The recruit is commended for possessing the necessary qualities to succeed in the classroom and on the football field.
• The letter points out BYU’s 12 consecutive bowl appearances, an ESPN partnership that broadcasts Cougar games to 70 million households, the 1984 national championship and the numerous player awards, the opportunity to earn a nationally respected degree with connections to a future career.
• The scholarship is based on the following conditions: Meeting BYU academic requirements and personal conduct that will represent the student-athlete’s family honorably
• The player is advised that there are many deserving student-athletes who would like to come to BYU, and by withholding their verbal commitment, the spot may be offered to someone else.
What kind of player is BYU trying to recruit?
It’s essentially the same type of athlete that has typically come to BYU. The mantra is always “bigger, stronger and faster” but recruiting restrictions due to the Honor Code and a renewed emphasis among Pac-12 schools to recruit Utah has always made expanding the recruiting pool a difficult proposition.
BYU Director of Recruiting Operations, Tevita Ofahengaue, declined an interview request for this story. But Mitch Harper, who covers BYU recruiting for the Rivals-sponsored Cougar Nation website, has observed this coaching staff’s efforts since Sitake took the head coaching job in the winter of 2016.
Harper said BYU has made a goal to get athletes to commit earlier in the process and to identify the players who are really committed to the program.
“Kids that get mesmerized by the stars (Power 5 schools), BYU will move on,” Harper said. “They are trying to zero in on the vision that Kalani has for BYU.”
Sitake and his staff have shown they aren’t afraid to go after some big fish in the recruiting process.
“They are taking the approach that they will go into every home and compete with the ‘Who’s who’ of college football,” Harper said. “Internally, they understand the disadvantages they face due to the Honor Code and budget restrictions. People forget, it costs money to spread that net.”
Getting on the recruiting trail
Sitake is considered a great recruiter, but Harper has also been impressed by others on the coaching staff.
“One guy who has really stood out from Day 1 staff is cornerbacks backs coach Jernaro Gilford,” Harper said. “When he’s going to a high school evaluating a prospect and sees someone else that interests him, he’ll track down a family member to make contact. This staff is very willing to offer on the spot and that’s a different approach than past coaching staffs. Kids from California and other areas can relate to Coach Gilford.”
Harper said offensive line coach Mike Empey has been a strong recruiter as well and deserves credit for recruiting the “Four Horsemen” in the class of 2018: Top offensive line prospects Campbell Barrington, Jaren Kump, Jacob Smith and Connor Pay.
“He’s selling the NFL dream to those kids pretty heavily,” Harper said.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ty Detmer has been a “pleasant surprise” on the recruiting trail, according to Harper.
“When Ty was hired, there were some questions about how invested he would be in recruiting as a first-year college coach,” Harper said. “But he’s done a good job. Kids are still wowed by his Heisman Trophy.”
The Class of 2018
Besides a strong offensive line presence, the class of 2018 has focused on the defensive backfield.
“Cornerback is a position where BYU has been really aggressive,” Harper said. “I think every year that’s going to be a position that will be a big focus. Defensive line is another area that will always be big.”
The high-profile recruit on BYU’s radar is four-star quarterback Tanner McKee from Corona, Calif. McKee is 6-foot-6, 220 pounds and ranked the No. 3 pro-style quarterback by Rivals. He’s being courted by just about every major college program in the country.
Another key component of the 2018 class is Reno, Nev., linebacker Brandon Kaho, a four-star athlete who has made a verbal commitment to the Cougars but is still drawing plenty of attention from Power 5 schools.
The Kalani Effect
When Sitake came to BYU, he brought a reputation as a terrific recruiter. The “Kalani Effect” is reference to his ability to make recruits from all walks of life feel comfortable because of his genuine nature. He’s not only worked his magic with high school athletes but with a number of players who have transferred in from other college programs.
Harper said Sitake puts a lot of stock in how well a prospect treats his mother.
“The approach by Kalani is he wants these guys to be good dads, good brothers and good family members,” Harper said. “He wants to see a recruit be good to his parents. Kalani feels like if a recruit is not going to be respectful to his parents, he isn’t going to be respectful to his coaches or teammates.”
It will take time — probably three or four seasons — for Sitake’s recruits and vision to fully integrate into the starting lineup. He’s largely playing with recruits from the previous coaching staff. The offense has struggled in 2017, and Harper said he wouldn’t be surprised if BYU reached into the junior college ranks to bridge the gap.
“I could see a situation where three or four JC guys would be added to the mix and enroll winter semester,” Harper said. “The wide receiver position could be a huge focus and spot where I could see two or three guys added. Kalani experienced at Utah firsthand with all the success Kyle Whittingham had at the skills positions as they transitioned from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12. It was tough for Utah to compete with the other Pac-12 teams for skills position guys out of high school, so Whittingham turned to the JC ranks and had great success with running backs and wide receivers.”