Because of church missions, season-ending injuries, transfers, redshirt seasons and even COVID-19, putting an exact number on the BYU football team’s senior class this season has been like trying to hit a moving target.
“In terms of legacy, all those (37) guys should be proud of what they have done here. And it’s not just stuff on the field. It is stuff they have done off the field as leaders and teammates.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
The school officially announced Monday that 13 players who have exhausted their collegiate eligibility this season — including some who took advantage of the “extra year” allowed by the NCAA due to the pandemic in 2020 — will play in their final home games Saturday (1: 30 pm MST, BYUtv) when the Cougars host Utah Tech at Lavell Edwards Stadium.
So this article will focus on those 13, with the caveat that an additional 24 players, including high-profile players such as quarterback Jaren Hall, receivers Puka Nacua and Gunner Romney, and linebackers Max Tooley, Payton Wilgar and Keenan Pili, could also be playing for the final time in Provo if they make the decision to leave.
Those 24 will also be honored Saturday, just in case they are transferring, entering the NFL draft or retiring from football, head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday.
“In terms of legacy, all those (37) guys should be proud of what they have done here,” Sitake said. “And it’s not just stuff on the field. It is stuff they have done off the field as leaders and teammates.”
Actually, 16 players are listed as seniors on BYU’s 2022 roster, but the oft-injured Romney, linebacker Chaz Ah You and safety Malik Moore, who suffered a fractured hand in the fourth game, against Wyoming, are on the 24-player juniors/ others list in BYU’s game notes this week and will have decisions to make.
According to his NIL collective, CougConnect, Moore plans to return in 2023.
Romney’s case is the most intriguing, because he went through Senior Day festivities last year before deciding to return. Because of a lacerated kidney, Romney has only played in two games this season and could count this as a redshirt year if he doesn’t play in more than four games by the time the season is over.
Family members and receivers coach Fesi Sitake have said Romney is still in the process of deciding.
Another player on the “juniors” list, offensive lineman Harris LaChance, told the Deseret News in September that this is his final season in Provo.
“I wanted to leave last year, but I got hurt,” LaChance said. “So I came back this year and we will see how it goes. But yeah, this season is it for me.”
Last week, Sitake said part of the bye week would include discussions with many of those 24 players who have been in the program four or five years but still have a year of eligibility remaining.
“It is just (about) communicating and talking to them,” Sitake said. “They know that we care about their life, not just as a football player, but their future. We are just giving them all the information that they can seek for themselves, and the feedback, and us coming to an understanding.
“It is not just us demanding that they hang it up and retire. It is important that they understand that we love them and that the situation they are in, there are options to look at,” Sitake continued. “But I think it is important that they feel a little bit of ownership in it as well. Nothing wrong with talking about things and options and the circumstances of the situation. I think young people nowadays really appreciate that.”
Emotional goodbyes for at least these 13
What is certain is that 13 seniors will receive their senior blankets around 1:15 pm on Saturday, and will turn their attention towards getting a sixth win so they can participate in a bowl game in December.
Here’s the list: running back Chris Brooks, defensive back Matthew Criddle, defensive lineman Lorenzo Fauatea, defensive back Kaleb Hayes, fullback Houston Heimuli, defensive back Chris Jackson, running back Lopini Katoa, tight end Lane Lunt, defensive back D’Angelo Mandell, linebacker Pepe Tanuvasa, defensive lineman Alden Tofa, defensive lineman Earl Tuioti-Mariner and offensive lineman Joe Tukuafu.
Sitake said this group’s legacy is that they overcame a lot of adversity — particularly Katoa, Mandell, Tofa, Tukuafu, Fauatea and Tuioti-Mariner, who began their careers in 2017 when the Cougars went 4-9 — and won a lot of games as well.
“They are the ones that helped us pull out of adversity, helped win a lot of games, and have been involved in establishing the culture of the program.” — Kalani Sitake on departing seniors
“They are the ones that helped us pull out of adversity, helped win a lot of games, and have been involved in establishing the culture of the program,” Sitake said. “So I am really grateful to them. They will always be a part of our program. We always want our alumni to come back here, and just take advantage of that.”
Sitake said all 13 should be “really proud of the things they have done since they first stepped foot on campus and be proud of the legacy that they are leaving behind.”
Of course, Brooks and Heimuli have only been at BYU this season, having transferred in from Cal and Stanford, respectively.
Jackson (Mt. San Antonio College), Hayes (Oregon State), Tanuvasa (Navy), Criddle (Snow College) and Lunt (Eastern Arizona JC) transferred in and have been at BYU anywhere from two to five years.
“We wouldn’t be the program that we are without those guys,” Sitake said. “They are the glue that keeps this team together and allows our program to keep progressing. It is always an emotional time when you get to the end of the year. Saying goodbye to people is difficult.
“We are hoping to extend that goodbye by winning this game and being bowl eligible. … I am really excited for those guys to get their opportunity and play and compete,” he continued. “They know that we love them and really appreciate them.
“I can’t say enough about their contributions to our program, and (thank them) for their blood, sweat and tears and everything they have put into our program. It is why we are able to have the success that we have had.”
Perhaps defensive lineman Tuioti-Mariner summed it up best, when asked how he would describe this senior class.
“I feel like we have left a legacy of just grit and toughness,” he said. “I feel like we have set the foundation for years to come. Some of us started in 2017 where we were kind of at the beginning of Kalani’s coaching. We weren’t doing too hot.
“But with Kalani’s culture and the way that we have tried to change things around, I think for years to come that BYU Football is going to be a powerhouse football program just from the culture that we have been able to build, especially from the seniors that are leaving,” he continued. “We kinda started that.”
A fond farewell, for now
Here’s a closer look at the six departing seniors who have been in the program since 2017:
All running backs: American Fork product entered the program as a walk-on in 2017 after a church mission to Missouri and was so good on the scout team in 2017 that star linebacker Fred Warner suggested to coaches that Katoa be given a chance to help a woeful offense during the season.
Katoa is currently tied with Jeff Blanc and Eric Lane for No. 13 on BYU’s career rushing touchdowns list with 21.
Offensive lineman Joe Tukuafu: East High product signed with Utah State out of high school, but decided to transfer to BYU after a church mission to Argentina when Sitake got the job and was forced to sit out the 2017 season when then-USU coach Matt Wells refused to release him.
Tukuafu, 26, moved from tight end to offensive line midway through the 2019 season and has been a part-time starter since 2020. He graduates in December with a degree in history.
Cornerback D’Angelo Mandell: After signing with BYU in February of 2017, Mandell left the program midway through fall camp in 2017 and worked various odd jobs for about 10 months in the San Diego area before defensive coaches Ed Lamb and Jernaro Gilford persuaded him to come back to BYU in 2018 .
He became a full-time starter in 2021 and recorded 36 tackles and four pass breakups last year. He has missed three games this season with nagging injuries.
Defensive lineman Alden Tofa: A fractured leg and assorted elbow injuries hampered the 23-year-old Tofa’s development almost from the time he first enrolled in 2017, but he had a breakout season in 2022, just in time to revive his hopes of playing in the NFL.
Tofa had a key sack in the 38-26 win over Utah State and a big tackle for loss against Notre Dame.
Defensive lineman Lorenzo Fautea: After originally committing to Oregon State, the Hunter High product signed with BYU in 2017 and was part of Sitake’s second signing class. He was a key contributor in 2018 and 2019 before breaking his foot midway through the 2020 season. More injuries followed, including issues with his back, but he has been a solid performer in 2022 with 18 tackles and a sack.
Defensive lineman Earl Tuioti-Mariner: Joined the Cougars in 2017 after a mission to South Africa and had a solid season in 2021 but still opted to return in 2022 for a sixth year in the program as allowed by the NCAA. Tuioti-Mariner has been hindered by injuries in 2022, and has appeared in only seven games to date and made nine tackles.
“Yeah, it has been a journey,” Tuioti-Mariner said Monday. “From 2017 until now, 2022, there have been ups and downs. But man, it has been a ride. I have loved it.”
Cougars on the air
Utah Tech (4-6)
at BYU (5-5)
Saturday, 1:30 pm MST
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: KSL NewsRadio 102.7 FM/1160 AM