BYU is now enjoying a bye week after earning their first win in the Big 12 Conference, beating Cincinnati last Friday.
Through five games, BYU is 4-1. We have learned plenty about this team already. They have played against three Power 5 teams, including beating SEC foe Arkansas on the road.
Let’s discuss what the BYU football team has shown us thus far in 2023.
1. The defense is unrecognizable (in a good way)
My goodness, what a difference a year makes. After parting ways with defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki last season, Kalani Sitake made a home run hire with former Weber State head coach Jay Hill. He was known for his aggressive style of defense in Ogden.
That shift in defensive philosophy has changed the trajectory of BYU football. Last year, they allowed 29.8 points per game, ranking 86th. To this point this season, they have allowed 22.4, ranking 48th. That’s a touchdown less per game.
That’s just the beginning of the story.
Remember how awful BYU was on third downs last season? They ranked 124th in FBS in third down defense. This year, they are allowing 16 percent less conversions, good enough for 24th in FBS.
Last year, the defense had a combined 14 interceptions and forced fumbles in 13 games. This season, they are already at eight.
Tyler Batty has 3.5 sacks, which is already just half a sack short of his career high in four seasons.
The defensive line is creating a surge, the linebackers are flying around, and the defensive backs are playing with swagger and confidence.
Jakob Robinson is, frankly, playing like he wants to be named First Team All-Big 12 (27 tackles, 3 INT, 2 PBU).
Last year, there were 19 total QB hurries. There are already 16 this season.
The havoc that Jay Hill promised is already on full display.
2. The offensive line is the biggest concern
Coming into the season, it would not be outrageous to have called BYU’s offensive line their best collective unit on the team. After all, left tackle Kingsley Suamataia is a projected first round pick. Connor Pay is experienced at multiple spots. Paul Maile comes from Utah with plenty of experience and a good reputation. Caleb Etienne transferred from Oklahoma State as at a massive 6-foot-8.
Despite all that, the run game has been nothing short of a disaster. While some of that might be on subpar play from BYU’s running backs, it all starts up front.
Out of 133 FBS teams, BYU ranks 132nd (yes, second to last) in rushing yards per game and 130th in yards per carry. The blocking schemes have been disjointed, inconsistent, and at times, nonexistent.
The Cougars have shown they can win despite their struggles in the run game. However, that task will turn very difficult, perhaps impossible, against the likes of Texas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma down the stretch.
Etienne has not performed up to expectations, garnering an abysmal 41.5 Pro Football Focus grade. He is seeing his snaps dwindle as Brayden Keim is playing much better.
Their pass protection has been good. They rank 47th as a unit in pass blocking, per Pro Football Focus.
BYU’s ceiling is as high as their offensive line permits.
3. Kedon Slovis is good enough...for now
Is quarterback Kedon Slovis the most talented signal caller BYU has had? Not even close. Is he the most electrifying athlete? No. The word that comes to mind when watching Slovis is “poise.” While not overly athletic and without elite NFL traits, Slovis is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in all the FBS.
That experience and poise has showed up more than once with Slovis donning the stretch Y helmet this season. When facing ferocious pass rushes or loud crowds, Slovis seems undaunted and calm. He has made NFL-caliber throws in spurts.
Slovis is not a first round-caliber quarterback. However, BYU doesn’t need him to be. He is 61st in yards per attempt in the FBS and 62nd in passer rating. Perfectly adequate.
He also seems to be gaining steam, turning in a 159.7 rating evening against Cincinnati after a slow start.
His accuracy at times leaves something to be desired. Those windows will get tighter as Big 12 play heats up.
4. Transfer portal is a net positive
There was much hand-wringing about how many players BYU was losing when the transfer portal opened up at the end of the 2022 season. They lost several key players who would have started this season. However, the transfer portal has been a net positive for BYU.
First, as mentioned, Slovis has been a serviceable, veteran QB. He is just the beginning of the transfer portal contributions.
Cornerback Eddie Heckard was named a captain this offseason after following Jay Hill from Weber State. That is quite a compliment as a one-year transfer portal rental. He has NFL traits.
He has 17 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, one sack, and one interception this season. He has a fourth-highest run defense grade per Pro Football Focus, as a cornerback.
His coverage skills coupled with his open-field tackling ability should garner him a phone call from an NFL GM next spring.
Eddie Heckard is an NFL CB. This open field tackle one of the most talented corners BYU has ever had pic.twitter.com/JLd7FShnhr— Nick Lee (@NickLee51) September 17, 2023
Colorado transfer Deion Smith has provided some depth at running back behind LJ Martin, scoring two touchdowns on 85 total yards in limited time.
Eastern Michigan transfer Darius Lassiter has 18 receptions for 222 yards and three touchdowns, which is tied for the team lead.
AJ Vongphachanh is fresh off of a 101-tackle season at Utah State. He is second on the team with 34 tackles.
Despite the snap mishap at the end of the game against Cincy, center Paul Maile has been solid in blocking grades. He rates as BYU’s best lineman in the run game.
Jackson Cravens came from Boise State as a disruptive defensive tackle and hasn’t missed a beat.
5. BYU belongs in the Big 12
This might seem silly, but the national perception was that BYU was in for a rude awakening in the Big 12. However, that still might happen, as FPI ranks BYU as having the ninth-toughest remaining schedule.
The Big 12 media ranked BYU 11th out of 14.
“Belonging” in the Big 12 can mean multiple things. After their first home conference game, it’s clear that BYU has the Power 5-level atmosphere and fanbase to match the Power 5 label of the team.
Also, in three straight games against Power 5 teams (Arkansas, Kansas, and Cincy), BYU is out-scoring them 100-96.
While they likely will not make it to Arlington for the Big 12 Championship Game this season, they are competitive. To this point, it has not been the massive learning curve some experts thought.