Provo • After a grueling two-hour spring football practice Monday that didn’t go as well as BYU’s offensive coaches would have liked, new running backs coach AJ Steward put more than a half-dozen players that he coaches through some additional conditioning drills.
“Just a disciplinary thing,” he said later. “We have to set a good foundation for our future right now. That’s a big thing. … It is never to make people’s lives miserable. There’s always a reason behind it. The biggest thing is we just have to be a more disciplined group.”
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes — who was also displeased with how the fourth of 15 allotted practices went on the offensive end — isn’t the only new sheriff in town. After a week and a half of camp, it is obvious that the coaching styles of Grimes and Steward are much different than their predecessors, Ty Detmer and Reno Mahe.
Detmer’s folksiness and Mahe’s ever-present smile have been replaced by steely stares and stern rebukes.
“I am very detail-oriented, and I believe there has to be a certain method to everything we do,” said Steward, who coached at Rice University in Houston for six years — two as a graduate assistant and four as running backs coach — before landing the BYU job in early February. “We just don’t come out aimlessly and go through the motions. So sometimes they have to learn it the hard way.”
Steward, 28, played at Kansas from 2008 to ‘11, going from quarterback to receiver to tight end with the Jayhawks while figuring out that he wanted to pursue a career as a football coach. He helped Rice rush for 187.0 yards per game last season, which ranked 38th nationally.
Last year, BYU started with a by-committee approach from its running backs. What will Steward’s philosophy be?
“When we are getting ready to play Arizona [in the opener], if there is one standout guy who has done it most consistently and he can play 70 plays, that is what we will do,” Steward said. “If we have to split that up to five guys or three guys or whatever, we will do that.”
Coach Kalani Sitake said he will leave it up to Grimes and Steward to decide how they want to divvy up the reps in practices and games. He’s not tied to a certain philosophy.
“Last year nobody really stood out and took the starting spot, whether it was injuries or just not being able to do it,” Sitake said.
Senior Squally Canada has the most experience, having rushed for 710 yards and six touchdowns last year. He’s getting the most first-team reps in camp.
“But that doesn’t make it for sure that it is his job,” Steward said. “Everybody is working for the starting spot right now. That’s their mindset. So the reps have been pretty much split between every single person in the room. That’s how we are going to do it until somebody separates himself.”
Two of the nine backs on the spring roster — junior KJ Hall (ACL surgery) and sophomore Ula Tolutau (undisclosed injury) — are just watching in spring camp and doing mental reps. Junior Austin Kafentzis is focusing on being a “true running back” and not just a specialist or a wildcat quarterback, Steward said.
Former American Fork star Zachary Katoa, a redshirt freshman returned missionary who originally signed with Oregon State, is already impressing Steward. Brayden El-Bakri and Kyle Griffits are the established fullbacks, while juniors Riley Burt and Kavika Fonua are also in the mix after Burt battled vision issues last fall and Fonua was injured early in the season and never returned to action.
Could there be an addition before fall camp starts?
Cal graduate transfer Tre Watson will reportedly visit BYU, New Mexico and perhaps some other schools before making his choice.
“For right now, this is our group,” said Steward. “Things happen in the offseason ... Sometimes there are guys that get subtracted or added, but we just focus on the guys who are here right now and whatever the future brings, we will be ready to embrace it.”
BYU’S RUNNING BACKS
• Squally Canada, 5-11, 210, Senior
• Brayden El-Bakri 6-0, 240, Senior
• Austin Kafentzis, 6-1, 195, Junior
• KJ Hall, 5-9, 182, Junior
• Riley Burt, 6-1, 215, Junior
• Kyle Griffits, 6-3, 230, Junior
• Ula Tolutau, 6-1, 242, Sophomore
• Kavika Fonua, 6-0, 212, Junior
• Zachary Katoa, 6-1, 205, Freshman