Michael Alisa knows what it’s like to be without a home, in and out of football, but he’s found one now, as the feature back in BYU’s run game.
It wasn’t much more than a year ago that he was a halfback trapped in a linebacker’s body. His high school coaches had seen him primarily as a defender. His coaches at BYU had recruited him as a defender. He played as a defender during a freshman year that had been distanced from the present by a two-year LDS Church mission on the islands of the Caribbean. His teammates saw him as a defender.
He did not see himself as that.
He saw himself as a running back.
And not some kind of plodding fullback.
He saw himself as a version of Marshall Faulk or Adrian Peterson.
At least in his dreams.
“That’s what I always wanted to be, in my heart,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m a running back.”
Well, he is now. But he took the long way home.
The displacement or misplacement on the field mirrored his life off it. Alisa was born in Hawaii. He moved with his family to Utah when he was 1. He then moved back to Hawaii when he was 8, shortly after he was hit by a car while riding his bike, and getting knocked unconscious. He moved back to Utah at 17, where he played linebacker and running back, mostly linebacker, at Timpview as a junior and senior.
Everyone pegged him as a linebacker.
He had a big frame and an aggressive way of playing that prompted coaches to keep insisting that he alter his own vision for himself.
“My passion was as a runner,” he said. “I waited and waited for my chance.”
That chance came early in 2011, when he, as a sophomore, finally talked coaches into allowing him a shot at carrying the ball. They cracked the door only slightly, initially burying him on the depth chart. But as last season progressed, or didn’t progress, with the Cougars struggling early, as much out of offensive desperation as anything else, Alisa started getting his opportunities.
He ran hard in practice. He ran hard in games.
His rushing totals went like this: against Ole Miss, 0 yards on 0 carries; against Texas, 2 yards on 1 carry; against Utah 0 yards on 2 carries; against Central Florida and Utah State, 0 yards on 0 carries. Thereafter, against San Jose State, Oregon State, TCU, Idaho, New Mexico State and Hawaii, he got 453 yards on 82 carries, averaging 5.4 yards a pop.
“I tried to run every time I got the ball as though all my other chances depended on that one carry,” he said.
That attitude and effort set him up as the anointed Cougar back for 2012.
In fact, so entrenched is Alisa now, so respected by his teammates, who watched him work and climb from those nether regions of obscurity into his current state of promise and prominence, and by his coaches, it caused much more ballyhooed running back Josh Quezada to transfer out of Provo, on account of the presumed prospects of diminished playing time.
“Everyone around here respects Mike,” said Joe DuPaix, BYU’s running backs coach. “He’s earned that respect. He’s smart and talented, and he’s still learning. The future is bright for him.”
Alisa last season was nowhere near as complete a back as he’s being groomed to be this time around. He caught only five passes for 55 yards.
“We’ll throw to him,” DuPaix said. “He’ll run it. He’ll pass protect. He’ll do a lot of everything.”
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior is not particularly elusive, but because he has good vision and runs with the aforementioned passion and power, Alisa has landed that broad berth for himself. He’s a kind of poster boy for Bronco Mendenhall’s ideal for what BYU football players should be.
Although ... Mendenhall seemed less than pleased near the end of Tuesday’s practice, when Alisa countered a hit put on him by defensive teammate Daniel Sorensen with a punch to the defender’s helmet. It sparked the beginnings of a brawl that caused Mendenhall to call off the session. But not before he forced his players to repeatedly run through and over an obstacle course, followed by belly-flops into a couple of ice tubs.
DuPaix was only slightly bothered and more amused, actually, pleased to see the aggression that burns within his running back. It was the same stubborn emotion that enabled Alisa, against the flow of everyone else, to make the transition from defense to offense in the first place.
Nobody in BYU’s camp sees Alisa as a linebacker anymore. No longer is he misplaced or displaced.
He’s the Cougars’ lead runner. He’s found his home.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.