Search for workhorse running back goes on at BYU as spring camp approaches, but coaches aren’t panicking

Cougars’ latest target is South Carolina RB Ty’Son Williams, a graduate transfer who has returned their interest

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) scores his first of two second quarter touchdowns, in football action Brigham Young Cougars vs McNeese State Cowboys at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

Provo • BYU running backs coach AJ Steward has a message for fans who were concerned when the Cougars didn’t sign a much-desired workhorse running back when the second signing period began two weeks ago.

Relax — things are going to work out.

“To be honest, the running back situation at BYU is in a good place right now,” Steward said at BYU’s Signing Day news conference on Feb. 6. The term “Signing Day” is misleading, because Feb. 6 was actually just the beginning of the signing period, which ends on April 1.

In other words, Steward and his coaching cohorts are still searching for a running back who can help them in 2019, but are prepared to go with the guys they’ve got if it comes to that. They’re not panicking in any way, although they did miss out on several running backs they had invested a lot of time on in the days leading up to Feb. 6.

Steward and head coach Kalani Sitake said they will continue to search for another month or so if they don’t find one before spring practices begin on March 4.

“We have left no stone unturned,” Steward said. “Coach Sitake has allowed me to fly all over the country looking for guys who can best fit our program. I think it is going to pay off. … Anything we can do within the legal limits of recruiting, we will make sure we try to get accomplished in this next stretch before [spring] camp.”

Yes, the staff has scrutinized the NCAA Transfer Portal, checked it almost hourly, Player Personnel Coordinator Alema Fitisemanu and Steward have said.

Their latest find there who has returned their interest is Ty’Son Williams, a graduate-transfer who played at South Carolina the past two seasons after transferring from North Carolina after the 2015 season. Williams was ranked as the No. 135 player in the country by ESPN when he came out of Crestwood (S.C.) High in 2014.

Williams entered the transfer portal in mid-January. The 6-foot, 220-pound back has “plenty” of interest in BYU, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned. However, the Cougars are just one of more than a dozen suitors, including several Power Five programs. The Cougars are trying to get Williams to visit once spring practice begins in March.

Wiliams recently began following Steward and other BYU staffers on Twitter, a good sign for the Cougars.

Other candidates emerge

The staff also hasn’t given up on Emmanuel Esukpa, a graduate transfer from Rice who is also in the portal and is familiar with Steward, who coached him at the Houston school before replacing Reno Mahe as BYU’s running backs coach in 2018.

“In any year, we never stop looking,” Steward said. “You are never going to have your full roster in order until you are ready to start fall camp.This class is still open. There are still guys out there that haven’t found a home yet. There are different things that happen within your program, so it is always going to fluctuate.

“We are always going to do what we can to try and get the best players here that want to be here that can add to what we are trying to accomplish,” he continued.

More than 40 running backs have been in the portal since the 2018 season concluded, including BYU’s Riley Burt, who is transferring to Utah State, and one of the reasons the Cougars are searching for an RB to fill his shoes.

Oregon’s Taj Griffin, Ole Miss’ Eric Swinney and Texas’ Kyle Porter are among the running backs apparently still available, along with the aforementioned Williams.

Another possibility is former Wyoming running back Theo Dawson, a returned missionary from Jackson, Wyo., who entered the portal in early February and will have to sit out a year if he transfers to another Division I program.

Who’s in the fold?

Sophomore Lopini Katoa led BYU with 423 rushing yards in 2018 and will return; second- and third-leading rushers Squally Canada (412) and Matt Hadley (383) graduated and Burt (323) decided to leave for reasons he has yet to declare publicly.

“Riley gave us no reason in particular, no specific reason,” Steward said. “Guys just make the decisions they have to make that are best for them, and obviously we want people to be here that want to be here, and if you don’t want to be here, then good luck to you in the future.”

A pair of prospects that BYU referred to as “athletes” when they signed on Feb. 6 could possibly play running back: Luc Andrada of Pueblo, Colo., and Javelle Brown of San Diego. Both played myriad positions in high school, including quarterback, running back, and receiver.

“Right now, we are not projecting Javelle as a running back, but we won’t know for sure until we get him here,” Steward said. “He’s a really versatile player, as you can see on his film.”

At least two of the dozen or so preferred walk-ons who are expected to join the program have played running back, including Alec Wyble-Meza of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College and Masen Wake of Lone Peak High. Wyble-Meza had 181 carries for 1,018 yards and six TDs at SCC and Wake had 174 carries for 1,263 yards and nine TDs at Lone Peak last year.

“We are channeling our energy to guys that do want to be a part of this program and that can help take us to where we want to go,” Steward said. “Anybody who is outside of that, we wish them well. We don’t wish any negative things upon them, but we are not going to focus any negative energy on the guys that aren’t a part of BYU.”


BYU’s projected running backs for 2019 and their rushing yards in 2018

• Lopini Katoa, sophomore, 6-1, 210; 423 yards

• Tyler Allgeier, redshirt freshman, 5-11, 200; 49 yards

• Sione Finau, redshirt freshman, 5-11, 180; no carries

• Kavika Fonua, junior, 6-0, 210; no carries (injured)

• Morgan Pyper, sophomore, 6-2, 205; no carries

• Jackson McChesney, freshman, 6-0, 187; n/a

• Luc Andrada, freshman, 5-10, 175; n/a

• Javelle Brown, freshman, 6-1, 180; n/a

* Kyle Griffits, sophomore, 6-3, 235; no carries

* Darius McFarland, sophomore, 6-2, 260; no carries

Note: Andrada and Brown were listed as “athletes” or RB/WR when they signed on Feb. 6; Griffits and McFarland are fullbacks.