Albuquerque, N.M. • There are a lot of reasons why the BYU Cougars went 6-6 in the 2010 regular season, a mediocre year that included losing and winning streaks of four games apiece.
Not having the services of potential All-America running back Harvey Unga was not one of them, coach Bronco Mendenhall said on Monday. The coach said BYU's plan to replace its all-time leading rusher, who was denied re-admittance for his senior season after withdrawing from school last spring due to an honor code violation, was a successful one, even as the Cougars became a rushing-oriented team until freshman quarterback Jake Heaps found his rhythm.
The running back-by-committee approach worked, and will be on display again Saturday (noon, ESPN) when the Cougars take on 6-6 UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl here at University Stadium. It could be argued that BYU did a much better job replacing Unga than it did tight end Dennis Pitta.
"I feel like [the running backs] have been one of the most consistent groups on the field," Mendenhall said. "It has been three players contributing, at least, with a fourth being fullback Zed Mendenhall. "Between Bryan Kariya, J.J. [Di Luigi] and Josh Quezada, they all have different styles. But between the three of them they have done a nice job and given us a chance to be postseason-eligible."
Quite likely, the Cougars' three-headed monster at running back will be utilized similarly next year, because Kariya and Di Luigi are juniors and Quezada is a freshman. Zed Mendenhall and Mike Hague, both sophomores, will probably again share the fullback duties.
"Yeah, that's our plan at this point," said Bronco Mendenhall, who is Zed Mendenhall's first cousin, once removed.
Former Snow Canyon High all-stater Adam (Timo) Hine, a four-star recruit from St. George, returns from a church mission and is also expected to have an immediate impact, much as Quezada had this year.
Getting about three-fourths of the carries that Unga (208 to 158) got last year, but catching far more passes (42 to 16), Di Luigi was arguably the team's most valuable player on offense. He carried the load, especially early in the season.
"J.J. really was instrumental at the beginning of the year," Bronco Mendenhall said.
"We weren't sure how the rest of our running backs would be, and J.J., especially when we were struggling early, was one of the bright spots in being able to run and catch the football. He was effective, and he maintained that. Really, he's been consistent all the way to the end."
Kariya, the team's second-leading rusher with 519 yards, said replacing Unga's numbers was never the group's main focus.
"Juice [Quezada] and J.J. and I, we kind of got into a rhythm, we got to know how each other plays, and we just built momentum throughout the season," Kariya said. "It will be fun to see if we can do it again next season."
Quezada gradually was given more carries as the season progressed, and went over the 100-yard barrier for the first time in his career against New Mexico (15 carries, 107 yards). Running backs coach Lance Reynolds said "Juice" has the potential to be one of the top running backs in school history.
"He's got the tools to be really, really special," Reynolds said.
BYU running backs in 2010
GP/GS Att Yrd TDs Rec Yrd TDs
J.J. Di Luigi 12/9 158 819 7 42 422 1
Bryan Kariya 12/9 131 519 5 21 122 0
Joshua Quezada 12/0 84 404 4 6 31 1
Totals 12 373 1,742 16 69 575 2
Harvey Unga in 2009
GP/GS Att Yrd TDs Rec Yrd TDs
12/12 208 1,087 11 16 121 1
Fifth annual New Mexico Bowl
P At University Stadium,Albuquerque, N.M.
Who • BYU (6-6) vs. UTEP (6-6)
When • Saturday, noon
TV • ESPN