Provo • Standout linebacker Fred Warner and BYU’s other football captains approached the coaching staff midway through last season and suggested that freshman returned missionary running back Zachary Katoa be given more playing time.

“They came up and said, ‘hey,’ we gotta play this guy. He’s one of our best players,’” said head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday after the Cougars wrapped up their seventh practice of spring camp. “We thought about it and decided it would just be best for him to [redshirt] and come in January.”

The former American Fork High standout is certainly here now. He ripped off a couple of impressive runs in Monday’s 11-on-11 sessions that featured hitting, but no tackling. Katoa, 6-foot-1, 205, signed with Oregon State when Sitake was there in 2015, but followed the coach to Provo when he returned from a mission to Independence, Mo., just a few days before school started last fall.

“Well, I recruited the kid, so he is probably a good one,” Sitake quipped. “He handles his business in the classroom and does well off the field. … I think [redshirting] has been really good for him. He’s a lot farther along than a lot of returned missionaries have been, including myself.”

Tailbacks such as Katoa, Riley Burt, Austin Kafentzis and Kavika Fonua and fullback Brayden El-Bakri got the bulk of the carries Monday while the most experienced running back in the group, senior Squally Canada, mostly watched. Two other experienced RBs, KJ Hall and Ula Toluta, are out with injuries.

Sitake and new running backs coach AJ Steward said last week that they haven’t decided yet whether they will tab an every down running back or go with a by-committee approach like last year.

“Guys are starting to emerge as good running threats for us and we will hope to have it settled by the time we get to the fall,” Sitake said.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU running back Zachary Katoa takes a handoff during spring football practice in Provo Monday March 12, 2018.

Upon further review

Much was made about how the offense dominated the defense at last Thursday’s scrimmage, with the defensive-minded Sitake acknowledging the oftense “got the upper hand” in the full contact drills. But the third-year coach spent part of BYU’s spring break weekend watching film, and he wasn’t as hard on the defense’s effort on Monday.

“Not as bad,” he said. “There are some things we can work on. … I think it was good for some of the younger guys to get their ‘welcome to college football’ that way. The defense responded well when they came back today. That’s because we had a lot of the right guys in there.”

Sitake mentioned that all three projected starting linebackers — Sione Takitaki, Butch Pau’u and Zayne Anderson — and defensive end Corbin Kaufusi were held out of Thursday’s scrimmage.

“It was really good film,” Sitake said. “More than anything, it was just good experience for those younger guys to get.”

Sitake on 4-9 season: Time to ‘turn the page’

Friday’s scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium will mark the start of the second half of spring camp, and Sitake said the players “are right where we want them to be” in terms of picking up new offensive and defensive schemes.

“Right now we are just trying to lay down the basics and the fundamentals both offensively and defensively,” he said.

As for putting last year’s 4-9 season behind them, Sitake said that happened before camp began.

“Looking at last year, you just have to turn the page and look forward to the season,” he said. “Let’s focus on the future. … I am very pleased with our leadership stepping up. It was tough. But I am looking forward to getting past the adversity and overcoming the obstacles that we got ourselves into last year.”