Provo • Aidan Robbins understood what he was getting into when he elected to have hand surgery before spring camp.
He wouldn’t be able to participate in team segments, or scrimmages. In his first offseason with BYU after transferring from UNLV, most of the live work that is critical to establishing yourself as a clear-cut starter, wouldn’t include him.
So, three weeks into spring camp, it isn’t necessarily surprising Robbins’ limitations have left a clear opening for a younger stable of running backs to start jockeying for his carries. But just because it was expected, doesn’t make things any less interesting in an increasingly tight running back battle.
Miles Davis, Hinckley Ropati and Sol-Jay Maivia-Peters have all emerged as serious contenders for carries in the 2023 offense.
“They are getting a lot of reps. It has been fun to watch those guys,” offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said. “Miles and Hinckley are much improved from a year ago. Sol-Jay is what you saw in the bowl game. He is a Swiss Army Knife.”
This isn’t to say Robbins won’t be the presumed starter next year, or heavily in the mix. But how the carries are divided up is now in the air.
Even before spring camp Robbins was entering a much different situation than what Cal transfer Chris Brooks entered last year. In 2022, Brooks was almost immediately handed the starting role and a large portion of the carries. BYU didn’t have much experience at the position and needed somebody to add immediate depth.
But Robbins is coming into a room that is more seasoned. Davis, who was a third-year freshman last year, has now started games. Ropati has too. Maiva-Peters won the MVP of BYU’s bowl game. It was never going to be as easy for Robbins as it was for Brooks.
Add in the fact that Robbins can’t fully participate, and the competition for carries just increased.
Still, Robbins is able to take some reps in the non-contact portion of practice. And after rushing for 1,000 yards last year at UNLV, he has enough film where reps in spring aren’t everything in his evaluation to be the starter. But the gap is tightening.
“I really like the addition of Aidan,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “He is doing all the drills, but he can’t do the 11 on 11 work. [Ropati] is doing some really good things [without him]. Miles [too]. Once we get everyone healthy, it is just who is going to get the bulk of the reps? Who is going to be the top two, two three guys? That is what we are working toward.”
Isaiah Bagnah and Eddie Heckard initial impressions
Within his first month on the job, Jay Hill hit the transfer portal and made two players in particular a priority: Boise State edge rusher Isaiah Bagnah and Weber State corner Eddie Heckard.
Bagnah would be a key to his new attacking scheme on the defensive line, getting to the quarterback with more blitz packages. And Heckard would be a veteran in the secondary who could run his defense — after playing for him at Weber State.
Initial returns on both have been about what you would expect. Bagnah’s pressuring of the quarterback has translated to BYU’s scheme. He had 10 sacks in four years at Boise. For now, the coaching staff is mainly working on rounding out his game as a run-stopper. But the skill they needed most, pass rushing, he has brought.
“Look at what he’s done already in terms of pass rush,” Sitake said. “But there is more to the game than just pass rush. He is learning to be a run-stopper. I mean the guy has a ton of athleticism and speed. He is still putting on weight and I think he is going to be competing at defensive end by the time we get done with spring ball. He is already working toward that.”
Heckard, meanwhile, has been a steady presence. He is still earning the trust of a new program, but he will likely be a plug-and-play starter next year. He came up with an interception in the two-minute drill during Saturday’s pseudo -scrimmage.
“He is going to be a good player in this defense,” Hill said. “The ones who have been around him know it. He is tough and has played a lot of football. He has played a lot of college football. But he is also trying to earn the confidence and trust of the other players and other coaches. That is going to be a critical part for him moving forward.”
Don’t expect an answer on the O-line
BYU’s offensive line was going to be a project this spring. Returning just three starters — Kingsley Suamataia, Brayden Keim and Connor Pay — the Cougars had holes to fill and a puzzle to figure out.
Unsurprisingly, there haven’t been many answers yet as to who will fill those holes. There probably won’t be answers this spring.
“My guess is that it will go into fall camp,” Roderick said. “There are just too many good players there. I don’t think you will resolve your starting five in 15 practices. It might happen, but five practices in, there is really good competition. A couple of good players who aren’t practicing right now due to injury.”
Utah transfer Paul Maile, Missouri State transfer Ian Fitzgerald and Utah State retread Weylin Lapuaho are the main guys working into the system right now (although Maile is injured and sitting out contact drills). That is alongside some younger players who BYU already had in the program, like Peter Falaniko.
Is it a bad thing that BYU will go into the summer unresolved at offensive line — a group that relies on chemistry? Well, not according to Roderick.
“First of all the competition keeps everyone improving. If you just said tomorrow, ‘Here is the starting five,’ there is no motivation factor there,” Roderick said. “You want people to keep working. You don’t want to play mind games with people. But you want guys to keep working.
“And the other reason is you want to keep working different combinations. Because you never know, if this injury happens, what is our contingency plan? If you lose this guy, then we shift this guy over here. We have several guys playing guard and tackle. Some guys just go from tackle to tackle. But there are a bunch of variables there and it is good to keep working.”