BYU football: Emphasis on strength development apparent as Cougars open spring camp

BYU opened spring football practices on Monday, probably for the first time ever in February, and head coach Kalani Sitake says he liked what he saw from almost every position group on the team before any player threw or caught a pass, or participated in a drill .

That’s because the Cougars appear to have accomplished one of their primary goals in the offseason — which was to get bigger and stronger across the board.

“It is pretty obvious that our team got a lot bigger and stronger the last couple months, working out,” Sitake said.

“We tested our guys in the weight room, and I really like the numbers from the whole group, so overall as a team I am really happy with the strength numbers, and we will see how it transfers over to the football field.”

“I think the guys just came in with a different type of attitude in the weight room, and it showed in the numbers, it showed in the testing. Every position group got stronger. And that should help us out.” —BYU football coach Kalani Sitake

Sitake said the defensive linemen, who were roundly criticized for not being able to stop the run effectively in the bowl game loss to UAB, have really stepped up.

Caden Haws, Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Tyler Batty, Josh Larsen, Gabe Summers and John Nelson are among the returners who saw significant time last year.

“I think the guys just came in with a different type of attitude in the weight room, and it showed in the numbers, it showed in the testing,” Sitake said.

“Every position group got stronger, and that should help us out.”

The coach hopes the renewed emphasis on weight room work helps the Cougars avoid injuries, which led to the defense, especially, being depleted at the end of last year.

“Strength training doesn’t get enough credit for the injury prevention that it has in the program,” Sitake said.

As far as the first practice went, Sitake said it “was a really good day” and seemed to suggest that the offense is ahead of the defense, which was expected.

“Really impressed with Jaren (Hall) and the offense and the timing,” he said. “Defence, we have some things to go through. … I like a lot of the new bodies we are seeing on the defensive side, and a lot of the guys came back (bigger and stronger).”

After conducting the first day of a spring camp for the seventh time he’s been at BYU, Sitake said this is one of the most game-experienced teams he’s had, unlike last year when Zach Wilson and many of his weapons moved on.

Speaking of Hall, the starting quarterback pronounced himself 100 percent healthy and ready to go, recovering nicely from the ankle/foot injury that kept him out of the bowl game.

The fifth-year junior said he suffered three broken ribs against Arizona in the opener last year and played through the pain against Utah and Arizona State, while also sustaining a chest injury.

“It was fun to see everyone come back and get going again and see the wheels start turning a little bit,” Hall said.

Fellow quarterback Jacob Conover said all the quarterbacks got reps Monday, including himself, Cade Fennegan, Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters and Nick Billoups.

Neither Fennegan nor Billoups participated in the team portion of practice viewed by the media.

“The first day was awesome,” Conover said. “I mean, spring ball is meant to be enjoyed, and everyone bought in today and got their first-day jitters out, so it was fun.”

A few other developments and/or roster surprises:

• Offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga is back on the team after missing all but one game in 2020 with injuries and all of 2021 for undisclosed reasons. The former starter, listed at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, has started in 19 games and appeared in 22.

“Adding him to a deep O line is really good for us, and we will see how much we can use him,” Sitake said. “He was limited in practice today, which is really good for us. We need to get to the fall healthy, and there are a lot of other guys who can use more reps in the 11-on-11 stuff (than Saleapaga).”

• In the media viewing portion of practice, defensive back Micah Harper lined up in the safety positions. Harper was a cornerback his freshman year, 2020, and started in five games. He suffered a major knee injury in spring camp last year and missed the entire 2021 season.

“All our corners will play safety, and all our safeties will play corner,” Sitake said, when asked if Harper’s move to safety is permanent.

• A couple players have switched jersey numbers, as is usually the case every year. Tight end Dallin Holker has gone from No. 32 to No. 5 and linebacker Ben Bywater has gone from No. 33 to No. 2.

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