Provo • Injuries, a suspension, fumbling problems and plain old indecision resulted in seven different players getting starts as BYU’s primary running back last year.
That by-committee approach, intended or not, did not go well. The Cougars finished 104th in the country in rushing offense, gaining just 130.5 yards per game on the ground.
That’s probably why head coach Kalani Sitake seems determined to find a workhorse this season, a guy he can count on for 20 or so carries a game, every game.
“We need to have a guy who is going to be the [clear-cut] starter,” Sitake said after last Thursday’s scrimmage. “That’s what they are all competing for right now. We need to name a starter, and then know that the other guys will compliment him.”
New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes sounds less convinced than Sitake that having a primary running back is the way to go.
“I am OK with either and I have had success with both,” Grimes said. “It just depends on what you have. If you have got one guy that is clearly better than the rest, then I am great giving him most of the carries. If you have two or three guys who are similar in terms of their effectiveness, I am more than happy to do that, even if it means slightly different roles. Some guys run different plays better than others. So, history has shown that both ways can be effective.”
Grimes was the run game coordinator and offensive line coach at LSU the last four seasons and coached a couple of greats there, Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette. No such talent is walking into LaVell Edwards Stadium any time soon. Nor is Jamaal Williams, the Green Bay Packer whose talent and ability covered up a lot of the offense’s inefficiencies in 2016 when he was the go-to back and the Cougars finished 9-4.
“I don’t know yet,” Grimes replied when asked what he has among the half-dozen guys trying to earn the starting spot in preseason camp.
Running backs coach AJ Steward said his plan is to adapt to the talent he has.
“My philosophy is just to put the best guys out there that help our team win,” Steward said. “If that’s 10 guys or one guy, so be it. Whoever proves himself in camp is who we are going to roll with when the season starts.”
Steward said just because a player earns the starting running back spot in the opener doesn’t mean he will be the starter in the second game.
“It is a long season,” he said. “I want these guys competing and getting better every day … Studies show that with the running back position, you rarely if ever start and finish the season with the exact same depth chart.”
Steward said moving quarterback Beau Hoge and linebacker Matt Hadley to running back is not a sign the coaches are unhappy with the talent level they have at the position.
“We want to have depth at every position and have enough competition to make everybody better as well,” he said.
So which guys are in the lead to get the most carries on Sept. 1 at Arizona?
Sitake mentioned senior Squally Canada, redshirt freshman Zach “Lopini” Katoa, junior Riley Burt and even freshman walk-on Tyler Allgeier for doing “good things” in the scrimmage. Hoge “is going through some stuff, injury wise,” and hasn’t participated since the middle of last week, Sitake said.
Canada got reps with the first team in Monday’s practice and Katoa made some nice plays catching the ball out of the backfield.
The competition “is not really defined yet,” Katoa said. “Guys are still being given chances to prove themselves, but I think we are getting closer and closer. Squally and I are [getting most of the first-team reps], but there are a lot of other weapons that we have who are getting a lot of reps, too, so probably too soon to say who’s on top.”
BYU’S RUNNING BACKS
• Squally Canada, Senior, 5-11, 210
• Lopini Katoa, Freshman, 6-1, 210
• Riley Burt, Junior, 6-1, 210
• Beau Hoge, Junior, 6-1, 220
• Matt Hadley, Senior, 6-0, 210
• Sione Finau, Freshman, 5-11, 180
• Tyler Allgier, Freshman, 5-11, 200
Note: Juniors Kavika Fonua and KJ Hall are injured and not currently participating in camp