BYU has upgraded its depth at running back; now assistant coach AJ Steward must decide who gets the football

Provo • Fifth-year graduate transfer running backs Emmanuel Esukpa and Ty’Son Williams made difficult decisions a few months ago, choosing to play their final seasons of college football for BYU.

Their moves not only created an embarrassment of riches at running back for BYU, it also created an interesting decision for the Cougars’ offensive coaches, most notably second-year running backs coach AJ Steward.

Who gets the rock the most?

“I will always want to go with a workhorse, if we have one,” Steward said Monday.

But what if they have two, or three, or even four guys capable of being every down backs?

Also in Steward’s Stable are sophomore Lopini Katoa, who rushed for 423 yards and eight touchdowns last season in BYU blue and is the incumbent, so to speak. Then there’s promising redshirt freshman Tyler Allgeier, who showed flashes of brilliance last season as a kick returner, and former Kearns standout Sione Finau, one of the shiftiest BYU ball-carriers in recent memory.

Idaho Falls walk-on Morgan Pyper, returned missionary Jackson McChesney, fullback-type bruiser Masen Wake and Alec Wyble-Meza, a walk-on transfer from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, are also in the running backs room during preseason training camp.

“I just want to put the best 11 guys on the field every single play,” Steward said. “If we play one back consistently until he gets tired and comes out, I am fine with that. I have had success with a number of guys being in the rotation as well. That goes back to the depth chart assessment: whoever proves their role and proves their worth, will play. Who has earned it, that is going to rear its head in camp and we will make a decision at that point.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said last Friday that there are several guys who could be workhorse-type backs and maybe push for 1,000-yard seasons, but the depth is there to spread the ball around if they need to go that way.

“Last year, we played running back by committee because we had to,” Grimes said. “We had so many injuries. This year, we might do it because we have so many options — not because we have to. That’s not a bad thing. But if there is one guy who clearly shows that he is better than everyone else, then that will certainly be reflected in the number of carries he gets.”

Early reports are that Katoa, who prepped at American Fork High before a church mission to Missouri, has accepted the challenge and competition brought on by the graduate transfers and is flourishing in camp. Finau has also improved a lot.

“More than anything, the increased competition level makes everyone better,” Grimes said. “When you have talented players step in, that may be the guy or not, they are going to push everyone. So the entire group is getting better because they are all having to work to determine those reps right now.”

BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Williams and Esukpa bring “a different level of professionalism” to the team with their maturity and work ethic. Williams ran for 328 yards and four TDs last year in an injury-shortened season at South Carolina and Esukpa ran for 461 yards and three TDs last season at Rice.

“A lot of it has to do with this being their last year. It is the last go for them, and when they are in here, they are practicing. They are not screwing around,” Sitake said. “It is a really nice mindset to have in our running back room. All the backs have worked a lot harder, and it is starting to show right now.”

Steward said it is too early to put out a depth chart, which is “fluctuating daily” anyway. He’s looking for consistency, reliability, knowledge of the playbook and ball security.

“They kind of have an idea themselves of how the depth chart will play out, based on their consistency,” he said. “I am huge on consistency daily, so when it comes down to telling guys who is going to start and lead the show, it has pretty much ironed itself out because the guys have a pretty good understanding and there is no doubt about the guy who has been the most consistent.”

Williams and Esukpa both said Monday that having each other around and to lean on has been a pleasant surprise.

“Oh my goodness, it has been a blessing, honestly,” said Williams, who arrived in Provo after Esukpa earlier this summer. “Everything that I have had to do, he was doing as well, so we just always did it together. It has been great to have him here. It has made my transition a whole lot smoother.”

Now if he can just find a restaurant that’s open on Sunday.


• Lopini Katoa, So., 6-1, 210 — Ran for 423 yards and eight TDs last season as a freshman

• Ty’Son Williams, Sr., 6-0, 220 — Ran for 328 yards and four TDs last season at South Carolina

• Emmanuel Esukpa, Sr., 5-11, 225 — Ran for 461 yards and three TDs last season at Rice

• Tyler Allgeier, Fr., 5-11, 220 — Reshirted in 2018 after rushing for 49 yards in four games

• Sione Finau, Fr., 5-11, 185 — Redshirted in 2018 after appearing in just four games

• Morgan Pyper, Fr., 6-2, 202 — Walk-on from Idaho Falls shined in spring practices

• Jackson McChesney, Fr., 6-0, 205 — Returned missionary from Lone Peak High is a speedster

• Masen Wake, Fr., 6-1, 235 — Bruising two-way player led Lone Peak to state title last fall

• Alec Wyble-Meza, So., 5-10, 206 — Walk-on from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College