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2019 Opponent Preview: BYU Cougars

(Photo via Chris Nicoll/USA TODAY Sports)

2018 Record: 7-6 overall
2019 Record: 0-1 overall (L, 30-12 vs. Utah)

Head Coach: Kalani Sitaki, 4th year (20-20 overall)
Location: Provo, Utah

Leading Passer: Zach Wilson (So.) — 21-of-33, 208 yards 0 TDs, 2 INTs
Leading Rusher: Ty’Son Williams (Sr.) — 7 carries, 45 yards, TD
Leading Receiver: Matt Bushman (Jr.) — 6 receptions, 62 yards
Leading Tackler: Zayne Anderson (RS-Sr.) — 7 tackles (6 solo), 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU

Total Offense Rank: 103rd (300.0)
Passing Offense Rank:
77th (208.0)
Rushing Offense Rank: 106th (92.0)
Scoring Offense Rank: 115th (12.0)

Total Defense Rank: 68th (362.0)
Passing Defense Rank: 16th (106.0)
Rushing Defense Rank: 123rd (262.0)
Scoring Defense Rank: 81st (30.0)

Following a monumental loss to Georgia State to begin the season, Tennessee welcomes BYU to town for a Week 2 match-up in Neyland Stadium. The Cougars are also coming off a disappointing loss, this one to their top rival — Utah.

BYU returned 13 starters for the 2019 campaign — six on offense and six on defense. The Cougars even return their kicker. BYU played 26 freshmen last season — 17 of which were true freshmen. As a result, head coach Kalani Sitake’s team has the depth to have a strong season in Provo.

Like Tennessee, the Cougars will be looking to bounce back from a season-opening loss with an impressive non-conference win.

Here’s a look at what BYU brings to Knoxville on Saturday.


BYU’s offensive success begins and ends with quarterback Zach Wilson. Though he was just 21-of-33 for 208 yards to go along with two interceptions against Utah, the sophomore appears poised for a strong season after a nice debut as a freshman.

Wilson completed 62 percent of his passes as the youngest starting quarterback in program history last year. He threw for 1,578 yards, 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions in eight games — six of which were starts to end the season. Wilson also rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 65 attempts.

BYU’s offense was much better over the final seven games with Wilson as the starter than the first six games of the season. The offense scored 11.3 more points, rushed for 77.4 more yards, gained 109.4 more yards overall, and scored 1.8 more touchdowns a game with Wilson leading the way.

In the bowl game against Western Michigan, Wilson was a perfect 18-of-18. He underwent offseason shoulder surgery and missed spring practice. If Wilson has to miss time, redshirt freshman Jarren Hall will come in. Hall played in two games last year as he redshirted. He attempted just two passes and didn’t complete either attempt.

Wilson’s favorite target is junior tight end Matt Bushman, and rightfully so. Bushman is the best, most reliable receiver for the Cougars. Last season, he led team in catches (29) and receiving yards (511) to go along with two touchdown receptions.

Though Bushman may be Wilson’s go-to target, BYU’s receiving group is an experienced and somewhat deep one. The Cougars return eight of their top 10 pass-catchers from a season ago. Bushman leads the way, but the expectation is that Wilson’s group of receivers will be the most productive group BYU has had in years.

The redshirt senior tandem of Micah Simon and Talon Shumway will likely start for the Cougars at receiver. Against Utah, the pair combined to catch five passes for 47 yards. Shumway started in nine games last season while Simon started in nine.

Senior Avela Hifo is BYU’s slot receiver. Hifo started eight games last year, playing in all 13. He led the team in all-purpose yards, totaling 545 yards. He also had a team-high seven punt returns for 135 yards and was second on the team in receiving with 28 catches for 358 yards and two touchdowns.

In Week 1, BYU threw the ball to eight different receivers and gave the ball to five different rushers.

South Carolina grad transfer Ty’Son Williams led BYU in rushing against Utah. In his first game as a Cougar, Williams rushed for 45 yards on seven carries. He ran for a 10-yard touchdown and caught a pass for four yards.

Though Williams led the team, BYU has three capable running backs in Williams, redshirt sophomore Lopini Latoa, and Rice grad transfer Emmanuel Esukpa. Latoa rushed for three yards in Week 1, while Esukpa didn’t play.

BYU is strong along the offensive line. The Cougars are led by left tackle Brady Christensen and center James Empey. As freshmen last year, Empey was a Freshman All-American while Christensen had a terrific rookie campaign himself. According to Pro Football Focus, Empey was the No. 1 freshman center, and Christensen was the second-best freshman tackle in the entire country.

Throw in starting right guard Tristen Hoge, who sat out last year after transferring from Notre Dame, and BYU has a strong starting lineup. The Cougars usually have one of the oldest offensive lines in football. This year, the group returns six players who combined for 52 career starts.

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In 2018, BYU’s defense finished the season No. 18 nationally in total yards allowed with 324.1 yards given up per game. The Cougars also ranked top 30 in rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. In scoring defense, they allowed just 21.4 points per game — which was good enough for No. 24 in the county.

BYU struggled to generate pressure last season, but improved as the season went on. The Cougars lost NFL player Sione Takitaki, but they return 10 of their top 12 defenders, including seven players who combine for 33 starts.

Defensively, Austin Lee, Kavika Fonua, and Zayne Anderson lead the way. Last week against Utah, all three recorded seven tackles apiece. That matched Lee’s career-high and was Fonua’s career-high.

Juniors Zac Dawe, Khyiris Tonga, and Bracken El-Bakri are the projected starters along the defensive line in addition to redshirt senior Trajan Pili. Dawe played in all 13 games last year while Tonga has four career sacks. El-Bakri started eight games in 2018, playing in 12. Pili has 5.5 career sacks.

The key at linebacker for BYU is replacing the production of Takitaki. Fonua and Anderson are the backers the Cougars have turned to in order to do just that. Fonua redshirted in 2017 before receiving a medical redshirt in 2018 and has recorded 38 career tackles. Anderson redshirted last season after playing in four games.

Isaiah Kaufusi also serves as one of BYU’s key linebackers. He’s played in 22 career games and started six games at outside linebacker last season. Kaufusi posted 50 tackles, including six tackles for a loss.

Senior corner Dayan Ghanwoloku leads the way in the secondary for the Cougars. His experience — 32 starts in 37 career games — helped BYU’s defense allow just 194.0 passing yards per game last season. It was good enough to be ranked in the top 30 in passing efficiency.

Lee serves as one of the most important players on not only BYU’s defense, but the Cougars’ entire roster. He started 11 games last season and has 56 career tackles to his name along with two interceptions.

BYU’s defense saw 22 players make a tackle during Week 1 against Utah.

Special Teams

Opponents only made seven field goals against BYU last season. On 19 attempts, opposing teams connected on just 36.8 percent of their field goals, which ranked the Cougars No. 1 nationally.

Jake Oldroyd serves as both the kicker and the punter for BYU. He’s 5-for-6 on career field goals with a career-long of 43 yards. His first career punt came against Utah last week. Oldroyd punted six times with a long of 56 yards.

Hifo serves as BYU’s punt returner, and can also return kicks. The senior wide receiver returned a career-high four kick-off returns for 148 yards against Toledo in 2016. He has 29 returns for 598 yards in his career.

On BYU’s depth chart, sophomore Max Dilne is listed as the starting punt returner. He had two kick-off returns for 30 yards against Utah to start the season.

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