BYU’s new running backs are eager to push for playing time

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU running back Lopini Katoa, shown here speaking to reporters at BYU Football Media Day on June 18, 2019, is eager to work with new running backs Ty'Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa.

Provo • At first, Lopini Katoa wasn’t quite sure what to make of the idea.

BYU’s leading ball-carrier in 2018 learned that the Cougars’ coaches were checking the new transfer portal weekly to find guys who could theoretically take the rising sophomore’s place, and he felt a bit disrespected.

Then he met those two graduate transfer running backs — South Carolina’s Ty’Son Williams and Rice’s Emmanuel Esukpa — and he felt much better about it.

“They are both good kids. They both work hard,” Katoa said at Tuesday’s BYU Football Media Day. “My response after meeting them and getting to know them is that they are here to compete and make us all better. We’ve already been pushing each other, so it is all good.”

Williams, 6-foot-1, 219, and Esukpa, 5-11, 232, were introduced Tuesday and both said all the right things — that they are here to help the team, won’t try to take away all of Katoa’s carries, and will add depth to a running backs group that sorely needed it after Squally Canada and Matt Hadley graduated and Riley Burt transferred to Utah State.

Katoa rushed for 423 yards last fall, while Canada picked up 412, Hadley 383 and Burt 323.

Running backs coach AJ Steward said coaches didn’t check the portal with the mindset that they absolutely had to find a grad transfer, but when they found Williams, they focused in on the former four-star running back from Sumter, S.C. And Steward knew Esukpa because he was at Rice for six years before coming to BYU last year.

“We felt like we ended up with the right guys throughout the process,” Steward said. “It was good for us in the long run. We felt like that was the direction we had to go to fit the needs we were trying to fill.”

Steward said Katoa has handled the situation extremely well, just like he figured the former American Fork High star would.

“He has elevated his game and his work,” Steward said. “He has taken it to another level. I mean, every time I look up, he is in our building, doing something. He’s going to work out, or getting in an extra lift, or going out to get some extra footwork in, going out to run some routes and things like that.”

Katoa suffered a knee injury in the 45-10 win over New Mexico State on Nov. 17 last season and had to miss the Utah game and the bowl game. He recently tweaked his hamstring and wasn’t able to do most of the team testing the Cougars did last week. But he’s been a weight room warrior, Steward said.

“You always want a group that is competitive enough to bring everybody up, and I honestly think this will be the best Lopini Katoa we have seen, because of those guys who transferred in,” Steward said. “It has been beneficial to him and he has responded in a way that I expected him to — just going to work and taking his game up to the next level.”

Williams said he had heard of BYU when he was first contacted by Steward, he didn’t know exactly where it was.

“Even when I would tell people I was going to BYU, they would say, ‘where is that? Where is Utah?'” he said. “I am like, ‘you gotta look on the map.’ They had to figure it out that way.”

Asked if he ever dreamed he would be playing for BYU one day, Williams laughed.

“I never thought it would happen,” he said. ‘But things happen in life. I am just glad to be here now.”

Esukpa said he might have chosen BYU even if he didn’t know Steward, because of the school’s academic reputation.

“I came here because there are a lot of good things happening in this program,” Esukpa said. “It is obviously on the rise, and I just wanted to be a part of it.”

Esukpa ran for 778 yards and six touchdowns in 29 games at Rice. Steward said he will flourish at BYU.

“He works his butt off, and I am proud of him,” Steward said. “I have always been proud of him. He’s a great young man. He’s one of my guys that I know I can always rely on with the way he carries himself on and off the field, as well as the attention that he puts on his game and tries to make himself the best player possible.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said the Cougars went looking for one grad transfer and found two, but wouldn’t have taken them if they didn’t think they could make an impact right away.

“It just so happened that there were two that we felt like fit us,” he said. “And they felt like we fit them. We have some other guys that they will have to compete against for playing time and reps and that sort of thing as well.”

Katoa, among them, is ready for the competition.

BYU’s Graduate Transfer Running Backs in 2019

• Ty’Son Williams, 6-foot, 219, Sumter, S.C. (formerly played for South Carolina and North Carolina)

• Emmanuel Esukpa, 5-foot-11, 232, Grand Prairie, Texas (formerly played for Rice University)

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