If BYU’s running backs can stay healthy, assistant coach Harvey Unga thinks his group will have an impact

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) runs past the official, for a first down, in football action between Brigham Young Cougars and Utah State Aggies in Logan, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019.

While there are some pieces of the running back group that cause déjà vu and serve as a reminder of BYUY’s 2019 football season, there’s one key difference: Harvey Unga.

Unga, formerly a graduate assistant, took over the running backs coaching job after AJ Steward left the BYU staff for the same position at Arizona. And it has been anything but smooth sailing since.

Although Unga had already taken over the position on an interim basis a month prior, the staffing change wasn’t official until March — a week after the coronavirus pandemic was declared and the sports world essentially came to a full stop.

Unga — like his athletes —didn’t even get a full spring football season to get situated.

However, comparing the BYU 2020 running back group to last year’s, it can look fairly similar. The Cougars have all the pieces and potential to have a strong ground game.

The Cougars once again has a graduate transfer (last year was it Ty’Son Williams and this season it’s former Ute Devonta’e Henry-Cole) that coaches expect to get a lot of production from, and plenty of depth to be able to move players around and have a strong run game.

“There is a lot more depth with Lopini Katoa, Devonta’e Henry-Cole, Jackson McChesney and Tyler Allgier,” Unga said. “Each of those guys has had experience and coming into the season the maturity level bumps up a lot and it helps out a ton. Even with Sione Finau there are different dynamics with each of the running backs and what they bring to the table, so it will be fun to see. It has been fun to see the growth and strides of these players throughout spring and now leading into the season.”

Last year's running back group suffered a constant barrage of injuries, causing changes to the depth chart on an almost-weekly basis.

That can only bode well for the 2020 season. And it served as a learning lesson to those returning.

“I think it helped everybody to see you’ve got to be ready at any point,” redshirt junior Katoa said. “Guys can get hurt, so basically you have to have a room full of guys ready to play any Saturday.”

Katoa is one of the top two rushers coming back and led the team in carries for a second consecutive year in 2019.

The 6-foot-1 running back posted a team-high 853 all-purpose yards last season (358 rushing yards, 288 receiving yards and 207 yards on kick returns).

While Katoa loves the running back position, he also enjoys catching the ball and wants to be able to help his team any way possible. So, he hopes to be able to provide the same level of production this year.

“I hope to be able to run the ball, catch the ball and just be anywhere on the field where I can make a difference. I’m definitely preparing myself to do whatever it takes to know all positions, to be able to be on the field as much as possible I want to keep that up, to be dynamic.”

Katoa saw the bulk of his 2019 production in the second half of the season, after season-starter Williams suffered a season-ending injury and senior Emmanuel Esukpa dealt with a not-as-severe, yet continuous injury of his own.

Utah running back Devonta'e Henry-Cole (7) carries the ball against UCLA in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Finau, who became the first Cougar last season to rush for more than 100 yards in a single game (102 yards vs. Idaho State), wasn’t able to follow-up his breakout performance due to his own season-ending injury a few days later in practice.

McChesney also dazzled last season, which he redshirted. Against Idaho State, McChesney went in in the second half and put up a modest 46 rushing yards on 10 carries. The following week, at UMass, the Highland native put on a clinic with 228 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. His longest run — 62 yards.

It’ll be interesting to see what McChesney will bring to the group once more as a redshirt freshman.

So far, during quarantine and now during voluntary workouts, Katoa hasn't been impressed by just one teammate. Instead, he believes the entire running back group has been taking advantage of the freedom this pandemic has caused to better focus on themselves and how to better themselves on the field.

However, Katoa is vying for that RB1 position — as he expects his teammates to do as well.

“So I definitely see myself being RB1,” Katoa said. “I hope they all said the same thing because we all got to compete and the best man will play.”

As far as the depth chart, Unga said those types of decisions don't normally get made until the middle of fall camp, but it can still change in a day's notice.

“Lopini and Tyler have the most experience out of the running backs and then with Devonta’e we will see where he fits in with everything I am not going to hand anything to anyone, I want them to work for it,” Unga said. “These guys will rise to the occasion and we will work with that.”