PROVO — With its all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Williams, headed to the National Football League, BYU has a big void to fill in its run game.
Williams ran for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.
The Cougars are prepared to try to replace Williams’ production with several different ball carriers with varying styles — Squally Canada, Ula Tolutau, K.J. Hall, Riley Burt, Trey Dye and Kavika Fonua.
“I wouldn’t say there’s one guy. All along we’ve said it’s running back by committee,” said offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. “It will stay that way. In fall camp if somebody steps up and you can’t keep them out because you need them more, that guy will be the guy. They are all doing great and have made big improvements.”
“The competition will continue. There are some guys who need to improve certain things,” said coach Kalani Sitake. “There are five or six guys that we feel good about running the ball. Not a lot of experience. They’re all instinctive running backs we have a lot of guys that function in the system. That’s also why we’ll probably see a lot more two backs. We have running backs that can run routes and can split out and run slot positions We’ll try to take advantage of the mismatches we may see on the other side.”
Hall emerged late last season, getting his first carries in a mid-November game against Southern Utah. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Maple Mountain product finished his freshman campaign with 184 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 35 attempts and five receptions for 78 yards.
“It was definitely a confidence boost. It helped me and allowed me to see what I could do on the field,” Hall said of last year’s experience. “Size doesn’t really matter all the time as long as you know how to use it. I’m trusting the coaches and we all trust the coaches to put us in the situation that we need to be in to use our abilities to our betterment. Playing last year was kind of weird. I hadn’t played against anyone in four years. It was against my own team. It was fun to hit people other than my own team.”
Hall said he noticed a big improvement in his game during spring practices.
“When we first started, guys were trying to know the plays and get comfortable with the offense,” he said. “Now there are a lot more plays being made because people knew what they were doing. We have some new guys on the offensive side and they did really well as far as assignments go. Since their first day of spring, there’s been amazing improvement.”
Canada is BYU’s leading returning rusher after gaining 315 yards and scoring two touchdowns on 74 attempts.
At 6-1, 255 pounds, Tolutau, an East High product who signed with Wisconsin before his LDS Church mission, is a bruising, punishing back. Burt and Dye redshirted last season while Fonua was recently moved to running back from linebacker.
Managing this collection of ballcarriers is running backs coach Reno Mahe. The way Sitake sees it, Mahe is the right man to be overseeing this group because of his experience playing both running back and wide receiver.
“I love it. Reno is exactly what that was. He started out at running back, played receiver, played in the slot,” Sitake said. “When Luke Staley got hurt, he played running back the next game. So he’s been through it all. His experience, both in the NFL and in college, has prepped him for this type of situation this year.”
“Reno’s always wants us to know the plays and use our skill set in that way,” Hall said. “He’s done a good job of using us and knowing what situations to use us in. There’s been mention of running back by committee and I feel like that’s what it’s going to be like this year. I feel like we’re all going to be prepared and know what we’re going to do. We’re all different in what we do on the field. We’ll all be in different situations. It really doesn’t matter.”
Of course, the success of the ground game depends on the offensive line’s ability to block and open holes.
“Overall, we feel like we’re pretty good up front. That’s just like anything else. It takes reps, takes timing,” Detmer said. “We’re adding different combinations, different O-lines in there. Once you get the ones in there working together the whole time, things get sharper and the timing gets better. It will smooth itself out. We feel good about where we’re at and the opportunity to ramp it up in July and August.”