BYU is generally known as one of the oldest teams in college football, but the release Monday of the depth chart for Saturday’s opener against Sam Houston brought plenty of young, new faces to the lineup.
“First of all, there is tons of talent with those incoming freshmen and returned missionaries,” coach Kalani Sitake said in his first weekly press briefing of the 2023 season, BYU’s first in the Big 12. “… I mean, we only know how to do it one way: the best get on the depth chart and the best will be on the field. A lot of these freshmen are stepping up.”
“LJ Martin is another (true freshman) that is going to see the field. He’s got tons of talent, great vision. He’s big and he runs fast and he runs with a lot of power. So he will be out there.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake
More on those guys in a bit.
Monday brought more bad news for the safety positions, which defensive coordinator Jay Hill oversees. Last week, BYU acknowledged starting strong safety Micah Harper was lost for the season with another ACL injury — on the knee opposite of the one he injured in 2021 to miss that season.
Now it appears that the player who was supposed to replace Harper in the starting lineup — redshirt sophomore Talan Alfrey — will be out of action for awhile.
Alfrey, a part-time starter last year, suffered an undisclosed injury in the last scrimmage of fall camp and is nowhere to be found on the depth chart.
“Talan is not out for the season, but highly doubtful for this weekend, which is why we adjusted the depth chart,” Sitake said when asked about the player who had 41 tackles, two pass breakups and an interception in 2022.
Redshirt sophomore Ethan Slade, a walk-on, is listed as the starter at strong safety, backed up by USU transfer and fellow redshirt sophomore Crew Wakley “or” true freshman Raider Damuni, a returned missionary from Provo who was highly recruited out of Timpview High before his church service.
At the free safety spot, fifth-year senior Malik Moore is the clearcut starter, while redshirt sophomore Tanner Wall and redshirt freshmen Chika Ebunoha and Preston Rex are listed as battling for the backup spot there.
Asked why Slade, who had 17 tackles last year, won the starting spot, Sitake said it is because he is a playmaker.
“Ethan is a great student of the game. I think he’s been, not a surprise for me, but a surprise for Jay Hill. And he’s really taken to Jay Hill’s coaching and the mentoring he is giving him,” Sitake said.
“That whole group, I feel really good about safety group altogether. Obviously it hurts, not having Micah, and then not having Talan,” Sitake continued. “But the guys will pick up where those guys left off.
From what I have seen from Week 1 to where we are at now in fall camp, I feel really confident going into the season with Ethan and the others that are on the depth chart.”
Running back Aidan Robbins, who’s pretty much been RB1 since the day he stepped on campus as a 1,000-yard rusher from UNLV, said the release of the depth chart is always a big day within a team.
“I mean, it is just football, man. This is what we do for a living. A lot of us have been doing this for a long time,” Robbins said. “It is a good thing (for some). It is a wakeup call for a lot of others. But I mean, we truly believe in our coaches and we believe they make the right decisions in everything they do pertaining to that.”
Aside from the strong safety restructuring, there weren’t a lot of surprises Monday.
At kicker, which was a camp-long battle, special teams coach Kelly Poppinga said on his Coordinators’ Corner program that Boise State transfer Will Ferrin won the starting job over freshman Matthias Dunn. They are listed as co-starters at both kickoff and placekicker on the depth chart.
“We feel really comfortable with both Will Ferrin and Matthias Dunn as kickers,” Sitake said. “Poppinga has a high comfort level with both those guys. … We feel really good about special teams group overall.”
Coaches have said throughout camp that eight or nine different guys could win starting jobs on the offensive line, and the depth chart reflects that.
Only preseason All-America candidate Kingsley Suamataia is a clearcut starter, at left tackle.
At left guard, Utah State transfer Weylin Lapuaho and Missouri State transfer Ian Fitzgerald get the “or” designation. Same for right tackle, as Oklahoma State transfer Caleb Etienne and returning part-time starter Brayden Keim are listed as co-starters.
At center, it is either Utah transfer Paul Maile or returning starter Connor Pay. Redshirt freshman Peter Falaniko is listed as the backup there.
Whoever doesn’t start at center between Maile and Pay will be the starting right guard.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Little is listed as the backup at right guard. The other offensive lineman on the two-deep is Utah transfer Simi Moala, who will play behind Suamataia, who recently became engaged to BYU women’s basketball star Nani Falatea.
“Yeah, I mean, we have been able to rotate guys in different positions, and we feel like we have the flexibility of doing a lot of different lineups. We will settle in on something,” Sitake explained. “I look at it as a bunch of guys that could possibly start. That’s a good sign for us.”
As previously noted, there are seven “true freshmen” — defined as guys who were either in high school at this time last year or on church missions and haven’t played yet. And that doesn’t include backup punter Landon Rehkow — top punter Ryan Rehkow’s brother — or backup kicker Dunn.
Cougars on the air
Sam Houston (0-0)
at BYU (0-0)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium\
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: KSL 102.7 FM/1160 AM
“LJ Martin is another (true freshman) that is going to see the field,” Sitake said. “He’s got tons of talent, great vision. He’s big and he runs fast and he runs with a lot of power. So he will be out there. … Guys like Jackson Bowers will also be on the field.”
Regarding Phillips, the 6-foot-5, 190-pounder from Sierra Canyon (California) High School, Sitake said the “sky is the limit” for the three-star recruit.
“He is going to be really, really good, and he gets better every day,” Sitake said. “He is really tall and smooth and athletic and he’s got tons of speed and good ball skills. … He is in a group of really talented receivers.”