Ever since coming to BYU, Kalani Sitake has repeatedly affirmed his desire to put his best 11 players on the field. It has opened up battles at multiple positions as the Cougars open fall camp this weekend. Players are pushing hard to show they belong in that elite group on offense, defense or special teams.
Sitake is open to experimenting and tinkering to figure out where each player can best succeed.
“Our guys are going to find their identities and who they are,” Sitake said. “More importantly, I want to draw on what they bring to the table. Their journey to this position is unique. We’re crazy if we don’t use it all.”
Which players fit the bill of best 11 heading into the 2016 season? Here’s our guess at the 11 players who will impact BYU’s fortunes the most this fall:
Williams returns to the program after sitting out last season and brings back a dynamic running threat that BYU lacked in its backfield at times last season. The senior hasn’t played a full season since 2013, but he has the ability to tear up opposing defenses when full healthy.
Williams rushed for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry as a sophomore. He needs just 930 more rushing yards to become BYU’s career rushing leader. It’s a record Williams is eager to claim before his college career is done.
“It’s always in the back of my head,” Williams said. “I’ve always been working toward it. I do want it. I do want the record. At the same time, I do want our team to do great too. Honestly, it just comes by me working hard. I feel like with my performance and how I work hard and how I go about the season will determine how the season goes.”
Can Hill finally stay healthy? Starting with his freshman season in 2012, Hill has suffered three season-ending injuries. He’s attempting one more comeback after suffering a Lisfranc fracture in his foot against Nebraska a year ago. As fall camp approaches, Hill feels ready to go.
“This injury has been quite a bit different to rehab from,” Hill said. “I would never wish a Lisfranc injury on anybody. But I feel like between the training staff and the doctors, we’ve literally exhausted every avenue to get healthy and recover and I’m really happy with my progress. I’m basically doing everything with the team. No limitations.”
If Hill can exterminate the injury bug this fall, the senior could put together a memorable final season. He is already BYU’s career leader in quarterback rushing with 2,212 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns. Hill also ranks 13th in career passing yardage with 4,606 yards.
Scripting a much better freshman season for Mangum than what he delivered would be tough to do. Mangum threw for 3,377 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015 while completing nearly 60 percent of his passes. He averaged 259.8 passing yards per game. Mangum became the first freshman quarterback in BYU history to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season.
What can Mangum do for an encore? It’s tough to imagine him doing much to top a season highlighted by two game-winning Hail Mary touchdown passes in his first two games. But the sophomore feels like Ty Detmer’s offense will give him a real chance to elevate his game to a higher level.
“It’s a great offense,” Mangum said. “I like it a lot. It’s very balanced and gives us a lot of options. It gives us a lot of ways to attack a defense.”
“Our guys are going to find their identities and who they are. More importantly, I want to draw on what they bring to the table.” —Kalani Sitake, BYU head football coach
Creating chaos is what Warner does best. The junior linebacker is a disruptive force who can make life miserable for virtually any offense. Warner showed he can make plays anywhere on the field throughout a productive sophomore season. He led BYU with four fumble recoveries. Warner also ranked second in tackles for loss (11) and third in tackles (67) and sacks (4).
BYU returns its most talented and experienced secondary in many seasons. Nacua is the clear headliner in this group. The senior safety put together a dominant season a year ago. He snagged six interceptions — returning a pair for touchdowns — and totaled 137 return yards. It marked the best performance by a BYU defensive back since current cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford totaled six picks and 131 return yards for the Cougars in 2001.
Tuiloma missed BYU’s first four games in 2015 with an injury and it severely impacted BYU’s ability to stop the run. In the remaining nine games, he showed why he is so valuable to the defensive line. Tuiloma totaled 25 tackles and 2.5 sacks. His best game came against Utah State, where he totaled a career-high nine tackles and a sack. Tuiloma has played in 35 career games entering the 2016 season.
Lapuaho brings a ton of valuable experience to the offensive line. The junior has played at both guard and tackle for the Cougars. He has started 18 of the 21 games he’s played for BYU coming into this season. He helped anchor an offensive line in 2015 that allowed BYU’s offense to total 3,854 passing yards — the highest single season total for the Cougars since 2008.
BYU graduated three of its top four receivers a year ago. Kurtz, the one who remains, offers a proven target who has the size and kills to excel in the new pro-style offense. The senior only made two starts in 2015, but still finished third in receptions and receiving yards. Kurtz totaled 578 yards and three touchdowns on 39 catches. As a full-time starter this fall, look for him to deliver even bigger numbers.
With BYU moving to a 4-3 alignment this year, Langi’s role as middle linebacker takes on added importance. He should be up to the task of being a defensive leader after putting together a breakout junior season. Langi became a full-time starter and appeared in 11 games. He ranked second in tackles (68) and sacks (4.5) a year ago.
With Williams returning to the backfield, Brown will shift from lead ball carrier to fullback this season. He added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season to prepare for the change. Brown’s ability to pick up blocks could be a huge difference maker in buying Hill or Mangum and Williams time behind the line of scrimmage to make plays. Brown is a capable runner too. The senior totaled 709 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry last season.
Linehan made a smooth transition from rugby to football a year ago. He booted 62 punts for 2,649 yards in his debut season with BYU, good for a per punt average of 42.7 yards. Twenty of Linehan’s punts landed inside the 20 yard line and 10 punts went 50 yards or longer. One of his best games came in his debut against Nebraska. Linehan totaled 255 yards on five punts against the Cornhuskers — including a 77-yard punt.