This is the trickiest part of projecting Cougars’ 2024 post-spring offensive depth chart

BYU Football Head Coach Kalani Sitake walks off the SAB outdoor practice fields after practice at the start of spring camp in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024.

Before we present the Deseret News’ fifth-annual post-spring stab at BYU’s depth charts for the 2024 football season, a confession is probably in order.

While we got most of the 2023 projections right last April in regard to the offensive depth chart, we predicted that BYU’s offense under the direction of transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis would “keep on clicking in the Big 12 after (Jaren) Hall carried the Cougars last season (2022) when the defense faltered.”

“I thought we got better this spring. We still have a long way to go. But (there was) definite improvement, especially in our run game. We worked really hard at that this spring and I think we are heading in the right direction.”

BYU OC Aaron Roderick

Yeah, that turned out to be wrong; after going 8-5 in 2022 and averaging 426.3 yards per game with an offense ranked No. 36 in the country, the Cougars’ attack nose-dived in 2023 — even before they got into Big 12 play.

Remember the whopping 14 points and 257 yards the Cougars put up against Sam Houston in the opener? With Slovis getting hurt in the 35-6 loss to Texas, never to return, and Jake Retzlaff doing just OK but failing to deliver a win or many explosive plays in the final four games, BYU finished 118th in total offense and averaged just 309.8 yards per game.

The good news, when looking ahead to 2024, is that almost every skill position starter from 2023 is back, most notably quarterback Jake Retzlaff, receivers Darius Lassiter, Keelan Marion, Kody Epps and Chase Roberts and freshman sensation running back LJ Martin. The Cougars are trying to replace tight end Isaac Rex, running back Aidan Robbins and offensive tackle Kingsley Suamataia.

The bad news is that the unit that mostly took the brunt of the blame for the offense’s struggles, the offensive line, has some rebuilding to do. OK, maybe that’s good news.

Speaking of the O line, the only mistakes we made last year were penciling in Missouri State transfer Ian Fitzgerald as the starter at left guard — where Utah State transfer Weylin Lapuaho won the job. And we had Connor Pay at center and Utah transfer Paul Maile at right guard; they finished the season playing those spots, but started opposite of what we projected.

We had a few skill positions wrong — not knowing back then about the season-ending knee injury Hinckley Ropati would sustain or the eventual additions of Lassiter and Marion and emergence of freshman LJ Martin.

The point is that making these picks is dicey, at best. Throw in the fact that media members only get to watch about three hours (combined) of spring practices, and the task gets more difficult. And did we mention that BYU didn’t hold a spring game?

There was no spring game because the grass playing surface at LaVell Edwards Stadium is being replaced, but let’s be real. BYU coaches have never really liked having them, all the way back to Bronco Mendenhall.

“I actually prefer not to have a spring game because first of all in a spring game you don’t want to show anything to your opponents,” Roderick said after the 15th and final practice of spring camp. “We did a whole bunch of stuff today that was the first time we have ever tried some stuff, which was fun. You can’t do that in a spring game.

“And second, in a spring game you are so worried about not getting anybody injured that you usually hold out guys. Today, everybody practiced. Pretty much everyone. Spring games are fun for the fans. But for me it feels like kind of a wasted practice. To me, we got in one more practice.”

Bottom line, Roderick said after spring camp, is that the offense is “improving” and should be more balanced in 2024, after the run game faltered first in 2023, which in turn caused the passing game to sputter mightily.

“I thought we got better this spring. We still have a long way to go. But (there was) definite improvement, especially in our run game. We worked really hard at that this spring and I think we are heading in the right direction.”

Without further ado, here’s our stab at what the two-deep chart will look like when preseason training camp concludes in August and the Cougars turn their attention to Southern Illinois on Aug. 31. Our annual stab at the specialists and defensive depth chart will be put online later this week.

Starting QB is the big question, obviously

BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff gestures to his teammates during a practice on the SAB outdoor practice fields at the start of spring camp in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024.

Last year we wrote that there was no quandary at quarterback, as Roderick announced when 2023 spring camp ended that Slovis was the man. The real question was at QB2, where Retzlaff and Cade Fennegan were battling to back up the former Pitt and USC transfer.

Retzlaff emerged, which was important when Slovis suffered arm and shoulder injuries against Texas.

Roderick brought in former BYU-beater Gerry Bohanon from Baylor by way of South Florida, and curiously announced before spring camp that the QB derby was down to two, Bohanon and Retzlaff.

Coaches declined to name a starter coming out of spring camp — former BYU QB Max Hall says that’s a mistake — but what you really want to know is what we think, right?

The call here is Retzlaff, who gets a slight edge because he knows the offense better. Truth be told, our intel from folks who watched the final scrimmage indicates that Bohanon had a better final week of practices. But for now, it feels like Retzlaff’s job to lose.

Roderick’s statement that Retzlaff didn’t throw an interception in 15 spring camp practices was telling.

“We ran our offense. We throw the ball down the field in this offense. And so we were not being conservative or anything like that. We were just playing football,” Roderick said, when asked if Retzlaff was being ultra-careful with the football.

Bonus pick that you won’t find below because we are stopping at two names per position: Western Michigan transfer Treyson Bourguet is the front-runner to be QB3.

Who’s RB1? Martin is running away with it

Much has already been made of the fact that BYU coaches didn’t run out and find a suitable replacement for Aidan Robbins when the big back with a season of eligibility remaining turned pro. We think that’s a mistake. We will see.

Roderick feels like rising sophomore LJ Martin can become the workhorse back, if needed, and the El Paso, Texas, native has put on a few pounds to withstand the rigors of the job.

“He looks like a grown man now,” Roderick said. “He is going to be even more of an every-down player.”

Another running back, Miles Davis, jumped into the transfer portal, then back out, and says he’s ready to do everything on the field as well for the offense this season, after being limited in past years since moving over from receiver.

Although BYU rarely has one back on the field at one time, we have four listed on our depth chart, if only because we want to include a player that could make an immediate impact his first year in the program, just as Martin did last year. That player is freshman Pokaiaua Haunga, a Timpview High product who really helped himself in spring camp.

“I like our running backs,” Roderick said. “We are not actively looking for any running backs, or receivers or anybody like that. You never say never. You never turn away a great player, if somebody wants to be here, I think, at any position. But our need right now is one or two O linemen.”

After some 2023 restocking, receiving corps is ready to roll

Receiver Darius Lassiter (No. 5) celebrates a big play during practice in Provo this spring. | BYU Photo
Receiver Darius Lassiter (No. 5) celebrates a big play during practice in Provo this spring. | BYU Photo

Receiver is easily the deepest position on the team, with six solid pass-catchers who were here last year and made contributions.

Separating them into starters and backups isn’t easy or clearcut, but we will go with Lassiter, Roberts and Epps as the starters and Marion, Parker Kingston and JoJo Phillips as the primary backups. Look for Phillips, the redshirt freshman from Lancaster, California, to become a breakout star in 2024.

Having so much experience back “allows me to really focus on the nuances of our playbook,” receivers coach Fesi Sitake said. “Last year, even though they were experienced players, the transfers, in terms of Darius and Keelan, our playbook was still new. Now that they know it and it has been crystallized, we can focus on very specific things in the playbook.

“These guys have taken a huge jump this spring,” Sitake said. “They know the playbook extremely well.

I can line any of them up anywhere and feel confident they will know what to do.”

Returning missionary Cody Hagen, the four-star recruit from Corner Canyon High, joins the squad this summer but will be fighting “mission legs” and could be brought along slowly and play in only four games or fewer so he can redshirt. Redshirt freshman Devin Downing had a nice spring and could also be in the mix.

New names atop the tight end two-deep

Rex has dominated BYU’s tight end position the past four years, but he’s trying out for the NFL now and it is time for some new faces at this critical spot in BYU’s offense.

Sixth-year senior Keanu Hill was listed as a starting receiver in this space last year, but now he’s a tight end and we believe he will move to the top of the depth chart.

One of Rex’s chief backups last year, Ethan Erickson, missed spring ball with an undisclosed injury, allowing guys such as freshman Ryner Swanson and Jackson Bowers to see a lot of reps. Swanson drew rave reviews, enough to convince us to pencil him in as TE2 right off the bat.

Can the OL get going under TJ Woods?

TJ Woods
BYU offensive line coach in action during first day of spring drills in Provo, Feb. 29, 2024. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

Of all the position groups on the team, this one is the hardest to project. New offensive line coach TJ Woods hasn’t made it easy on reporters trying to get a grasp on the group, continually shuffling the lineup during the media-viewing portions of spring camp.

Let’s start with the centers: Fifth-year senior Connor Pay is a sure best to start at center, backed up by sophomore Peter Falaniko.

“It was great, I loved it,” Pay said of spring camp, after making the difficult decision to return after being told by NFL draft experts that he would probably be a seventh-round pick, or worse, if he bypassed his final season of eligibility and turned pro. “I love football. I love playing it. I enjoyed it.”

Utah State transfer Weylin Lapuaho should hold down the starting left guard spot, as he did for the bulk of 2023. Starting right guard is one of those position battles that might not be settled until the week before the opener, but for now it appears that sophomore Sonny Makasini has the inside track. Joe Brown, the returned missionary and former walk-on, has earned a scholarship and could push Makasini for a starting role.

Freshman returned missionary Jake Griffin also had a strong spring camp, and could play a variety of positions, as could the aforementioned Falaniko, who would have been the starting center if Pay had moved on.

Beyond Pay and Lapuaho, there are no sure bets, but look for seniors Brayden Keim and Caleb Etienne to get the starting nods at the tackle spots. Keim missed spring camp with a thumb injury, while Etienne lost some weight and it has been said that Woods has already made the Oklahoma State transfer a better player.

Projecting the backup tackles is tough, but we will go with Bountiful High product Trevin Ostler on one side and Weber State transfer Jake Eichorn on the other.

“I think coach Woods demands a lot, which is exactly what we needed,” Pay said. “He brings intensity, consistency and accountability. That’s been huge for our room.”

BYU’s projected 2024 offensive depth chart

Starter; backup

  • QB 12 Jake Retzlaff (Jr.); 3 Gerry Bohanon (Sr.)

  • RB 27 LJ Martin (Fr.); 4 Miles Davis (Jr.)

  • RB 7 Hinckley Ropati (Sr.); 23 Pokaiaua Haunga (Fr.)

  • WR 5 Darius Lassiter (Sr.); 17 Keelan Marion (Jr.)

  • WR 2 Chase Roberts (So.); 13 JoJo Phillips (R-Fr.)

  • WR 0 Kody Epps (So.); 82 Parker Kingston (Fr.)

  • FB 22 Mason Fakahua (Sr.); 42 Ray Paulo (Sr.)

  • TE 1 Keanu Hill (Sr.); 80 Ryner Swanson (Fr.)

  • LT 76 Caleb Etienne (Sr.); 74 Trevin Ostler (So.)

  • LG 61 Weylin Lapuaho (So.); 77 Jake Griffin (Fr.)

  • C 70 Connor Pay (Sr.); 68 Peter Falaniko (So.)

  • RG 51 Sonny Makasini (So.); 72 Joe Brown (Fr.)

  • RT 64 Brayden Keim (Sr.); 56 Jake Eichorn (Jr.)