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Cougar Insiders: What should fans expect in Zach Wilson's encore as a starter? (podcast)

It's been 10 days since BYU's Zach Wilson led the Cougars over Hawaii in his debut as a starting quarterback, so what can we expect in career start No. 2? How will he respond to a stout Northern Illinois defense, one that sacked Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley seven times earlier this season? Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney explore the challenges the Huskies present. They'll also discuss rising star Isaiah Kaufusi, what's making the rounds on the college sports message boards (Utah's big win over USC and quarterback Jack Tuttle's abrupt departure from the U.), and the Virginia Cavaliers, who are enjoying a solid season under third-year coach Bronco Mendenhall.

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Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Dick Harmon: On this week of Cougar Insiders podcast we're going to talk to you about Zach Wilson and is he just a blip or has he got some other things to back it up? We'll find out this week and we'll break that down. We're also going to talk about recruiting. The state of Utah is producing some great recruits and they're getting a lot of attention right now from not only people in the state but throughout the country. And then we're also going to take a look at a defensive player, Isaiah Kaufusi, and the job that he's done. That and more on this edition of Cougar Insiders podcast.

Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News along with beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're coming to you from Thanksgiving Point and we're talking BYU sports. Well gentlemen, it's been a bye week. Usually in bye weeks there's a little bit of a lack of energy and this team has always been challenged by a lack of energy. What will be the watermark for this team coming out of a two-week layover when you have such euphoria over what happened with Zach Wilson and everybody has a positive feeling about what happened then, but can that continue, Jeff Call this week? Must it continue and if he comes out and they start as well as they did against Hawaii, there's a couple of touchdown lead against a very good defensive team, if that happens have we seen a turning point in this whole program?

Jeff Call: Yes. One thing I'll go back to — you know every time we've seen this team win a big game, Arizona, Wisconsin, they come back the next week and they lose to Cal, they don't look very good against McNeese State. So that's going to be interesting to see how they respond this week after a big win against Hawaii plus the bye week. And the difference is, though, this time is that there's a new quarterback, kind of a new offensive scheme moving forward. And so it's imperative for this team to come out and do like they did against Hawaii and come out strong. I wouldn't expect them to score in their first two drives like they did against Hawaii, but I would expect them to at least move the ball and show some fire and some passion because Northern Illinois, as we know, is a much better defensive team than Hawaii. They're among the nation's leaders in sacks, tackles for loss. So it's gonna be a challenge for Zach Wilson and this entire BYU offense.

DH: Brandon Gurney, it is it too much to ask Zach Wilson to have the impact that people think he has? And that impact is this — is that it seemed like the defense played harder. The offensive line, they blocked a little bit better, the running backs got involved. You had seven different receivers and running backs score touchdowns. Seven different people. That hasn't happened since Ty Detmer played in 1989 and so that was a real big event there. Can Zach Wilson do it again? Can he have that kind of energy inject in this program and if he does this coming Saturday, have we seen a turning point in this program?

Brandon Gurney: Yeah, I think so. I always question the motivation this team has during the end run of every independent season that we've covered, just because the carrot at the end of the season just isn't really that big. I mean let's be honest with ourselves, there's not really any meaningful games and whatnot but I think with this youth movement, with so many freshmen playing on offense I think that it's easy to motivate those guys. It's easy to see upward mobility and guys want to continue to prove themselves just because it's their first year. They're excited, they're happy and I think that's probably the biggest thing Zach Wilson brought to this offense when you break it all down. I mean his numbers were mediocre but I think the offense saw new life, new energy and all that and energy is a big thing. What are we going to get? Who knows. I mean let's be honest, Hawaii wasn't a real defense. It's not really a real defense. NIU, I think we've overstated just how good they are defensively because I think most people will look at what they did against Utah, who was playing very poorly on offense when they did play NIU, and NIU totally shut them down. But it is I'd say a solid to good defense.

DH: There's that, but let's look back though. The last few years BYU has not put away a team that it should put away. It hasn't won by a large margin over teams that it should. We've had Portland State in here, we've had McNeese State in here, we've had some other teams that BYU should have beat. UMass, Eastern Carolina. And they just simply don't seem to have the energy and passion and the wherewithal to really put the club out and whip them. If they do that, have we seen the trend, Jeff? Has there been something here that's maybe a new catalyst with Zach Wilson?

JC: Yeah, I mean, if we see that same kind of performance this Saturday I think you can say, by all means, that's the case. But then, not to look too far ahead. But that next week, you see Zach's first road game at a place that BYU's never played. And I don't think Boise State is quite the team we thought it might be, but that's a significant challenge. And you know, he hasn't had a start on the road. That's another first that he'll have here coming up. So yeah, I think to me, it's just kind of a week-by-week basis until the end of the season. Because you know, and I think you wrote about this the other day, when you have freshmen in key places, you've got to take into account there's gonna be inconsistency. There are learning curves, and you've got to fight through those. And each week brings a different challenge.

DH: It almost seems like the youth movement though, and we've seen you know, Gunner Romney, we've seen Lopini Katoa, we've seen Zach Wilson, we've seen these offensive lineman that have got involved, we've got Dallin Holker. You know, they don't know better than to be bored and unenthusiastic and maybe accept defeat. It seems like maybe they're hungry. They're eager. They know nothing but winning. They've come from winning programs, and that's what they expect to do. And if we see that chemistry, it'll be something else.

Talking about quarterbacks, however, we had of course news in the state of Utah that Jack Tuttle, a very highly regarded four-star athlete leaves the University of Utah, announces that he's going to leave for a lot of different reasons. You know, Tyler Huntley is doing very well, the style of play might be a factor, but he wanted to play early, he's not playing early. But how does that affect other people around the state that now might be considering that, whether it be a Beau Hodge, whether it be a Joe Critchlow, whether it be anybody else in the program here at BYU. Quarterbacks are not going to wait. They're going to want to move on. The transfer thing, it seems to be a thing with quarterbacks right now. Brandon Gurney?

BG: I think the timing of it was just — how do you leave midseason? I think that might give a window. I know a few of the specifics, I've heard from people about what went on there. But when a kid leaves midway through his first season, the season's not over. I'll be surprised if wherever he lands, he's going to see success. I really will.

DH: Well he's labeled now as a quitter. You don't quit on your teammates.

BG: That's really hard for me to correlate it and just really shine a good light on this kid. I mean, I don't care what your problems are, you're gonna leave midway through a football season in your first year. But on the other side of it, I mean, if you're gonna make a big decision, it's better to make it early than late. I do agree with that. But just the timing of is just amazing to me. And it's become sort of an epidemic. It's increasing and increasing and whatnot. And from what I understand that he has the helicopter parent and basically the family making the calls and I think you get a lot of that in this day and age.

DH: You had an opportunity to listen to Coach Kalani Sitake talk about this very thing. Can you set up this interview for us?

BG: Yeah, he was asked about all that. And Kalani is labeled as a player's coach. And I think with the quote he gives he very much says that and I think the key thing was is he was asked, doesn't it hurt how much time you put into these recruits? I mean, it's basically half your job to convince these kids to come and then they leave and then Kalani just responded and says it would be more devastating to me if they stayed and acted like they were forced to stay and didn't want to be here, rather than having the free agency to leave. So I think that's a really good look for Kalani, just as far as being a player's coach and whatnot and that was basically his whole theme. I want guys that want to be here. And I think that's a big thing for any kid.

DH: Let's roll that interview.

KS: To me, whether it's playing time or other factors that get into it, is you want guys that want to be here and want to represent the school the right way on and off the field and in academics, so I think attrition is part of football. Wherever you go, there's always been movement and I think the important job a coach has is to be honest with the young man, where they see them fit, the role that they have, and if they don't see eye to eye I think it's OK for people to move on. I'm fine with that.

DH: Hey we're really blessed to be doing this podcast. There is a great opportunity for you to win prizes by posting your college football predictions online. Our sponsor GridPicks can let you do that. It's called GridPicks and you can sign up at the desertnews.com. I personally pick the 14 games each week and there are gift cards to be won. Test your knowledge and luck at DeseretNews.com/GridPicks.

Now the rest of the story. There's some things out there that we need to talk about a little bit more than we have. There are stories behind the stories and one of them is Isaiah Kaufusi, Brandon.

BG: If your last name's Kaufusi I'm going to bet that you're gonna be pretty good at football and you're gonna see a lot of success. It's just an amazing family. He's Jeff Kaufusi's son and Jeff's a great guy. Played for the University of Utah and just a classic Kaufusi guy and it was kind of a big deal for him to let his son go to BYU, if I remember correctly. But he was an undersized athlete, a lot like Corbin. A lot of these Kaufusis are late bloomers where you see them as undersized athletes that just kind of develop in to their bodies late, and I think he's going to be a fixture at linebacker for BYU in the coming years. I think he was fantastic against Hawaii. He was making plays. He was lively, and he's a guy that's always played well. Very big thing, because there's been a lot of attrition at linebacker. Losing Zayne Anderson was a big loss for this defense. But I think it softens the blow a bit just seeing what Isaiah Kaufusi was able to do.

DH: On the message boards it's always interesting because when you tune into that during the week, and Jeff Call, I know that you probably do not because it is what? What is the word you use, a D word? Depressing?

BG: Cesspool?

JC: Cesspool comes to mind, yeah. I personally don't enjoy it.

DH: Well, one thing that seems to be, whether you win or whether you lose, one theme seems to be the same thing, is the sky is falling, the sky is falling, everything's going to heck in a handbasket.

BG: Are you saying that there might be overreactions on the message boards? Masochism?

DH: Sensitive kids on the internet? I don't know. But this past week, the University of Utah had a great game, they beat up on Southern Cal. Southern Cal with its five stars and its four stars and its loaded roster, people that had turned down BYU and Utah, left the state of Utah to go play for the Trojans, they came into Rice-Eccles and got their butts kicked. On the message boards, oh no, Utah is ready for the NFL. BYU is just sliding, they don't have a chance. Now, Utah probably will beat BYU this year, but is it that bad? And is the hysteria something that we can address?

BG: Well the Pac-12 is just amazingly good this year. I mean those South teams are just monsters, I mean they're just, yeah. Yeah you're getting overreact to any win over a Pac-12 South opponent because it's not a good league at all. I mean, that said, Utah did what it was supposed to do and Utah is rounding into form but does that really surprise? I mean we knew Utah was going to be good this year, but putting a lot of on Utah. Are they that much better because they beat USC? And USC had a lot of injuries too.

DH: I give Utah all the credit in the world, it was a great win for them. But, Jeff Call, they have not played against two Heisman Trophy candidates and the best defensive player on Southern Cal's team, Porter Gustin, who is from Salem Hills, and he broke his ankle and wasn't able to. Isn't it amazing that Utah doesn't face the very best on three consecutive weeks that the opponents have to throw at them for the South Division?

JC: Yeah, I mean, that's kind of way it goes. Yeah. And I think, you know, it's all part of this rivalry that makes it so great as there's that natural comparison, even though BYU and Utah are not in the same conference anymore, it really doesn't matter. Because week to week, there's comparisons. If we think back just over a month ago, we had a weekend where BYU went into Madison, Wisconsin, upset the No. 6 team on the road and that same day Utah played Washington at home, did not look very good. And what was all the chatter then you know? And now it's kind of flipped. It may flip again before too long, who knows? But it's just one of those fun things and that's one of the things why I like the rivalry game at the end of the year, November, because you have this constant comparison and at the end of season they get to square off head to head and we get to see that.

BG: I guess the main point is does that really change your view that Utah made some moves and has some upward mobility based off that win? I think it kind of solidifies what kind of has become relevant, or should be relevant in most fans of mind over the years, that Utah's a really good program.

DH: That leads us into our next topic. The state of Utah is producing some very good high school football players. A lot of them can be seen as the playoffs continue in the state of Utah over the next month and for the University of Utah and for BYU and for commits that are looking at both schools. There's some pretty good players out there. And BYU got a commitment from — they didn't get a commitment, they made an offer to a player that you've had your eyes on for a while. Brandon?

BG: Yeah. Nate Ritchie. He's kind of in the same vein, I compare him to Zayne Anderson and Max Tooley and Drew Jensen, a player I think you're gonna hear a lot from in the coming years at BYU, both Max Tooley and Drew Jensen in that he's kind of the hybrid. He's probably going to play flash linebacker if BYU is fortunate enough to get him. Really good athlete. BYU was the second offer over the University of Utah and he's going to get more offers, absolutely. He's a 2020 kid. I love a good recruiting battle. I don't cover enough recruiting battles between BYU and Utah and BYU's hard pressed to win those battles. You saw an uptick after Kalani's first year where BYU was actually winning some of those battles for the first time in a long time over the University of Utah. We'll see how that maintains. I think how BYU finishes out the course of this year is going to be big with this kid. But being from Lone Peak, you kind of assume that it's probably a BYU family. A lot of families in Highland and Alpine are BYU families.

JC: He's definitely BYU.

BG: Oh, I didn't know that. So there you go. So BYU has a foot in. Very bad form that they were the second offer though. It was a day earlier. I mean, maybe it was just one of those things. But you gotta offer these kids first. That's a big thing. Because when it's that close sometimes that tips the scales, but it might have been close enough that it's kind of irrelevant, but this kid's going to get a lot more offers.

JC: Nate Ritchie is actually in my neighborhood. He's a good kid and I know him pretty well. I actually was his soccer coach when he was like 6 and as you can imagine, he was bigger than everybody else. And he was dominant — he just went up and down the field. And he was on the same team with my little twins who were about like a third of his size, they could fit in his pocket. But he's a great athlete and it's been fun to see him kind of evolve and emerge. He's a really good athlete.

DH: Do either of you have any comment on the commitments that BYU got in basketball — the kid from College of Eastern Utah and another kid from Southern California, Chinese guy, 6-foot-11. Any comment on either one of those real quick from both of you?

BG: Yeah it's about time they get something extraordinary, get something that you don't usually get. Some some 6-2 guard out of Utah.

DH: Brazil and China, that's different than Lone Peak High School.

JC: That's one of the things we've talked about many times, you know, BYU's got this ability to go all over the world to recruit because of the church and things, and now we're seeing a couple kids from from outside the country who are going to school here locally, or in the United States, join the program. So it'll be interesting to see how they acclimate and fit in.

DH: Final word. Let's talk about Bronco Mendenhall. I always liked Bronco, I've liked him from the day that they hired him. I respected his defense, I liked his wife Holly and his kids, I like the approach that he had of discipline and organization. He had a very steady run here, averaging nine wins a season, he's doing so well at Virginia right now and I'm happy for him. Jeff Call?

JC: Yeah I don't think anyone that's followed Bronco Mendenhall could be that surprised at the success he's having. I mean we saw what he did at BYU — he took a program that was coming off three losing seasons and turned it around and made into a very respectable program again, and he's doing the same thing at Virginia and it's been kind of fun from afar to see him do what he's done. They've had their struggles, particularly that first year, but seems like now he's got the program in a place where he's got the players he wants and he's got them doing the things that he wants them to do and, yeah. it's cool to see that and you know BYU fans like to look at that and some may compare and contrast with what they have now, but you know that staff at Virginia is basically the same staff that was here at BYU so it's fun and kind of intriguing to watch and see how they develop and how they do.

DH: Brandon Gurney, your final word. Not a lot, but there were some people that just didn't like Bronco when he was here and some of those same people are now saying man Bronco wasn't so bad.

BG: Yeah you never know what you got til it's gone, right? Bronco, you knew what he was. There's no surprises what Bronco, you know what kind of coach he is, and I think what fans are frustrated with with this team is the consistency. And Bronco, he had faults, he wasn't perfect, but that team was as consistent as consistent gets. You knew the effort that team was going to put forth, you knew that Bronco was going to scheme pretty effectively, defensively, and when they were beat they were just out-athleted. You never saw team, wow they weren't ready to play. Could you ever say that about a Bronco Mendenhall team? And that's something to hang your hat on and I'd say he has the perfect offensive coordinator in Robert Anae. You saw good effort, you saw consistent effort and that's the one thing that this BYU team lacks, maybe more so than anything else, is a consistent effort and that's probably the biggest thing they miss from Bronco Mendenhall.

DH: Brandon, Jeff, thanks for your input on this podcast. Appreciate seeing you guys after bye week. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Cougar Insider podcast. We'd love to hear from you through email at cougarinsiders@deseretnews.com and please subscribe or download our podcast wherever you find it. Share with others. We're working to deliver you the most up to date information on BYU sports and love to have you join us both in the newspaper and on this podcast. Thank you very much. We'll talk to you later.