There probably isn't a more unique or interesting program in FBS level football than the BYU Cougars. Between the school's unique "honor code," the requirements for staff (the head coach must be a practicing member of the LDS Church), and even the altitude the team plays their home games in, there's a lot to set apart this program from all the others.
From a football strategy perspective, the Cougars have one of the more unique rosters in the country and a totally different talent pool from which to build their teams. Because of the honor code, which prohibits behaviors such as the consumption of drugs and alcohol while also requiring sexual abstinence, and the existing demographics on campus you can be reasonably confident that only Mormon students are going to be attending the school.
There are about 15 million Mormons in the world and six million within the United States, which makes for a limited pool, but on the other hand BYU is THE athletics program for LDS Church members so they have a major recruiting advantage in every instance where a top rated athlete happens to be a Mormon.
Other interesting aspects of the BYU talent pool and roster composition have to do with the LDS Church's missional focus. Members of the Church are expected to complete a two-year mission after high school so BYU's players are either spending their first two years out of high school on mission before they arrive on campus or else starting their college careers and then pausing them in order to complete their service.
Between that and the tendency of the Mormon community to eagerly embrace starting their families early in life, BYU's roster is often loaded with 24-25 year old married men.
Another fascinating result of the LDS mission is that it has had great success reaching Pacific Islanders and bringing them into the Church. There probably isn't a genetic pool on this planet that produces a higher rate of FBS-level football players. Pacific Islanders just tend to have thick bones and big frames, which are both useful for allowing athletes to thrive in a violent, contact sport where suddenness and power reign supreme.
Because of all those factors, Kalani Sitake taking over a roster that is currently comprised of powerful Islanders and relatively older, married guys. What's more, the roster is more or less going to continue to look that way for the foreseeable future.
Here's how 247 rated the last seven recruiting classes for the Cougars (keeping in mind that the two year mission throws off the normal timeline for their players) and a glimpse at what Kalani Sitake is inheriting from Bronco Mendenhall:
It's fair to say that BYU's specific talent pool is poorly evaluated by the services since many of them come from the Pacific Islands and all of them have wildly different developmental paths than the average student athlete. That said, as a general rule BYU isn't loading up on the most highly sought after talents in the country. So how do you make the most of these rosters?
The Mendenhall plan
Prior to his time at BYU Mendenhall was all about an aggressive 3-3-5 defense with man coverage and a nasty pressure package but he had to adapt to the realities of the BYU roster. To be frank, you don't find a ton of sub 4.6 cover corners in the "married 24 year old Caucasian or Islander" demographic that surmises the better part of the BYU talent pool.
So instead the Cougars would play a lot of zone with deep, protected safeties and DBs and rely on stout fronts to force 3rd down when they could bring exotic pressures. Disciplined safeties combined with stout Islander fronts tended to produce units that were hard to run on even when playing honest fronts, which in turn helped Mendenhall protect his DBs.
It worked pretty well and in the 11 years that S&P measured his BYU defenses he ranked outside of the top 40 only three times and in the top 20 five times.
The big question was how to make the most of the BYU talent pool on offense. For years Bronco tried to do this with a pro-style attack similar to what LaVell Edwards used while making BYU famous in the 70s and 80s and launching future pro QBs like Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Steve Sarkisian, and Ty Detmer (more on him in a moment).
That worked pretty well in the 00's but then Bronco brought back departed OC Robert Anae to install an up-tempo spread picked up from Rich Rod during a stint Anae did in Arizona. When QB Taysom Hill was healthy, it was working pretty good, otherwise, not so much.
To be frank again, the spread is all about getting explosive players in space where they can win match-ups and there aren't a ton of explosive skill players in the BYU talent pool. The spread can also work by facilitating a precision passing attack but the Cougars have consistently lacked the QB to execute that kind of plan. They may have found one in Tanner Mangum, but now Mendenhall and Anae are moving on to Virginia.
Kalani Sitake and the Stanford plan
Eventually Mendenhall decided to move on from BYU for reasons that are murky though you wonder if the limitations of the Cougar talent pool wore on him. BYU initially offered the job to Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo but his triple-option flexbone would have been a huge departure from what has worked at BYU in the past and a poor fit for Tanner Mangum, who still has three years of eligibility left.
For reasons that are also murky, Niumatalolo turned down the job so BYU brought aboard Oregon State DC Kalani Sitake, another noteworthy Islander coach who's a member of the LDS Church and the Gary Andersen coaching tree.
Sitake's defensive style is quite different than Mendenhall's and it should be interesting to see how well it translates to the BYU talent pool. Kalani wants to get after the QB with aggressive DE play and man-1 blitzes, which should find success unleashing the talent BYU tends to assemble up front but may struggle on the back end.
The inevitable result of the move towards press coverage is that every great skill athlete signed by BYU under Sitake is going to have to start out at corner as the staff looks to find players that can allow this system to work without getting shredded by good passing attacks. Sitake should have some experience with this difficult since his previous coaching stops were at Utah and Oregon State, which are also lacking pipelines of All-American corners.
On offense Sitake went down to Austin, TX, where QB guru and BYU legend Ty Detmer was living the good life and coaching a private high school, and invited him to bring the LaVell Edwards offense back to Provo, UT. If you don't remember what that looks like, basically Sitake and Detmer's plan for BYU is basically to try and be Stanford on offense. They'll play some man-ball with a FB and TE on the field and look to set up and pound opponents up and down the field while mixing in a West Coast passing attack.
The days of using a rapid pace are over and the Cougar OL will now be getting low in a three point stance and huddling between snaps, a move that they are suggesting will allow them to be better rested and more physical.
The next big question is whether this will fit the BYU talent pool.
Historically, this has been the approach that put BYU on the map. The timing-based West Coast passing game combined with the emphasis on motion and the run game are often fairly complicated for collegiate athletes, but that's less of an issue with BYU. When LaVell Edwards was making this type of offense more mainstream back in the 70's it was commonly assumed by other coaches that he was only having success because they had so many older players that could handle the approach and that it wouldn't work with younger teams.
There's probably also an advantage today to be had from slowing things down and pounding opponents with bigger bodies and complex run schemes given how uncommon that is in today's game. While the spread is typically going to offer the most efficient path to scoring points for most teams, BYU isn't like most teams.
Before they can make this work, Detmer will need to find the kinds of TEs that make this approach really go, guys like Jonny Harline who had 58 receptions for 953 yards and 12 touchdowns back in 2006. From 2005 to 2009 BYU had an All-Conference TE every year while the 1980s saw six years in which a BYU TE was named an All-American. Since then they've been defined more by slot receivers and taller outside receivers rather than TEs.
The Cougars return blocking specialist upperclassmen Tanner Balderree and Bryan Sampson (zero combined receptions in 2015) to play the position while they look to get the more natural pass-catcher Josh Weeks more involved. There's also the chance they use more three receiver sets in a "spread-I formation" until they get this position back to where they want it. When Notre Dame transfer Tyler Luatua is eligible in 2017 that should help.
Detmer is inheriting two nice options at QB in Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum but he'll also have to rebuild the Cougar OL and recruit/develop some RBs that can handle being the focal point of the offense.
The prognosis looks good on offense if Detmer's reputation as a teacher and the BYU talent pool continues to produce the kinds of players it has for the last several decades. If Sitake can find ways to minimize or mitigate the "explosive skill player" sized hole in BYU's traditional recruiting base perhaps the Cougars can improve on what Mendenhall accomplished over the last decade and put themselves in position to benefit the next time the conference realignment game of musical chairs gets going again.