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2018 (Early) Position Preview – Running Backs

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Pictured: Current BYU RB Squally Canada runs past UNLV’s defense, via deseretnews.com

We are continuing on with the running game preview of next year!

As stated last week, a fantastic running game can buoy an offense experiencing a difficult QB situation. I would also add that even a fantastic passing game can struggle to succeed without at least a decent rushing attack. We may not know for sure what we’re dealing with at QB until Fall Camp, but until then we can talk about the other half of the offense, and try to figure out if we have a Jamaal Williams waiting to break out among the ranks.

BYU does (or rather, could,) in fact, return every single running back from last year. In many of those running backs, we saw flashes of promise and, at times, brilliance. The biggest issue the running game faced in 2017 was inconsistency. Part of that may have been from inexperience, as none of the running backs on the roster last year had ever been a starting running back before (though that didn’t stop Harvey Unga or Jamaal Williams when they got the nod,) but most assuredly injuries played a huge role.

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Pictured: Former BYU Cougar and current Green Bay RB, Jamaal Williams, running the ball in a game against Tampa Bay via espn.com

We’ll go over each running back, what they’ve been able to do so far, what their accolades were coming out of high school (to maybe gain a glimpse of their potential,) and finally try to predict what the depth chart might look like.

With the announcement of the release of previous RB Coach, Reno Mahe, it is still, at this time, uncertain who will be the RB Coach going into 2018, however with new Offensive Coordinator, Jeff Grimes’s experience with establishing a solid running game in his previous positions you can be assured that he’ll have a significant interest in finding a workhorse RB to top 1,000 yards as he has done for LSU the past 4 years.

It is feasible to expect, that even with a workhorse back, we might see a healthy rotation of running backs, judging from his last seasons with LSU where he was the running-game coordinator: He had his featured back, Derrius Guice, who had 216 carries and a 2nd back, Darrell Williams who had 136 carries. Squally Canada, our leading rusher last year, had 120 carries last year, for comparison. As it turns out, Williams and the #3 RB for LSU, Russell Gage (scat back/change of pace back,) were also the #2 and #3 receiving options, respectively.

Returning starters:

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Pictured: Current BYU RB Squally Canada runs over Boise State’s defense, via usatoday.com

Squally Canada (RS SR – Transfer.) A one-time Washington State Cougar, Canada was the presumed starter entering the 2017 season, being the only RB with significant playing time at the time. Canada actually had a decent opening game against Portland State, running for nearly 100 yards with an average 6.13 yards/carry and a TD, with his longest run of the day coming in at 34 yards. However, for various reasons we can only speculate (injury? loss of confidence?) Canada did not see significant time at RB again until 4 games later against Utah State, where he was again running well, averaging 5.75 yards/carry before being injured. Canada finally made a real comeback against Fresno State, where he was averaging a monstrous 7 yards/carry. His two best games, by far, came against Hawaii and UNLV, where he ran for 113 and 213 yards, averaging 6.65 yards/carry and season/career high 8.52 yards/carry respectively. In 2016, his season high average was against Michigan State, where he had an 8.33 yards/carry average. Canada was the leading rusher for the team in 2017, where he totaled 719 rushing/receiving yards, averaged 5.92 yards/carry and had 6 rushing TD’s. Out of high school, Canada was a 4-star prospect and averaged 8.8 yards/carry in his Senior year.

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Pictured: Current BYU RB Ula Tolutau runs through a hole against Utah, via twitter.com

Ula Tolutau* (SO – RM Transfer.) A Wisconsin commit before transferring after his mission, Tolutau was the featured back midway through the season before also being claimed by the injury bug, which he may have been more susceptible to having returned so recently from a mission. Tolutau took over during the Wisconsin game, where he gained 58 yards, averaging 4.46 yards/carry against possibly the toughest defense the Cougars faced all year. He gained most of his yards against Utah State, where he cracked the century mark by gaining 102 yards but only averaged 4.86 yards/carry – only marginally better than his performance against the undefeated Badgers. After Utah State, Tolutau struggled to stay on the field, with East Carolina being his last game with significant reps. Tolutau finished the year with 314 rushing/receiving yards, and averaged 4.21 yards/carry and 2 rushing TD’s. Out of high school, Tolutau was also recruited by Oregon State and Utah.

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Pictured: Current BYU RB Austin Kafentzis avoiding a tackle against Hawaii’s defense, via sltrib.com

Austin Kafentzis (JR – Transfer.) A one-time Wisconsin Badger, Kafentzis saw most of his action as a wildcat QB before the end of the year, where injuries forced Kafentzis into a more significant RB role. Against UNLV and Hawaii, where he saw his most reps of the year, Kafentzis averaged 5.37 yards/carry and almost cracked 100 yards against Hawaii. His most dynamic game came against San Jose State, where he gained his longest rush of the year, running for 34 yards. By the end of the year, Kafentzis gained 235 rushing/receiving yards, with an average of 5.54 yards/carry and 1 rushing TD. Out of high school, Kafentzis was a 4-star prospect, whose father played professionally, and was recruited by Alabama, Baylor, Boise State, Colorado, Florida, Florida State, Hawaii, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas A&M, UCLA, Utah, Washington, and Washington State.

Brayden El-Bakri (RS SR.) As the undisputed Full-Back, El-Bakri was a reliable receiving target out of the backfield and could be counted on for short-distance gains. He finished the year with 80 yards receiving, with his longest reception being a 26 yard TD pass against Utah State, and 67 rushing yards and a rushing TD against UNLV.

 

Returning Contributors:

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Pictured: Current BYU RB KJ Hall escapes San Jose State’s defense, via ksl.com

KJ Hall (RS JR.) A legacy player, KJ saw his most significant reps at the end of the year against East Carolina, San Jose State, and UMass. Generally considered perhaps the most legitimate receiving option out of the backfield, Hall had more receiving yards than any other RB in 2017. His best game of the year was easily against San Jose State, where he gained 156 rushing/receiving yards and averaged an eye-popping 11.2 yards/carry to go along with his only rushing TD of the year. He finished the year with 317 rushing/receiving yards and averaged an impressive 6.87 yards/carry.

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Pictured: Current BYU RB Riley Burt speeds past Cincinnati’s defense, via sltrib.com

Riley Burt (RS JR.) Perhaps the largest enigma of the football season was Riely Burt. Out of camp, there was talk of Burt having solidified his spot as the #2 RB in the depth chart, behind Canada. Suddenly and mysteriously, Burt was moved over to the defense where he didn’t even sniff playing time. After the RB corps was ravaged with injuries, Burt then moved back to his original position! He did not see any significant reps till the last game of the year, against Hawaii, where he showed some of the flash we were told about in camp. He ran for 75 yards and averaged 5.77 yards/carry. His longest run of the day was 21 yards, and capped off his day with a 11-yard TD run. Out of high school, Burt was a 3-star prospect, track star, and was recruited by Boise State, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah, and Utah State.

Kavika Fonua (SR.) Fonua began the year as the primary backup to Canada. His best game came at the very beginning of the year, against Portland State, where he ran for 59 yards and averaged 8.43 yards/carry. He also got some carries against Utah, but only averaged 2.75 yards/carry. He missed the remainder of the season due to injury. His timetable to return is questionable. A safety in high school, Fonua was rated a 3-star prospect and was also recruited by Utah.

Trey Dye (RS SR.) Another legacy player, Dye has yet to make his mark with the Cougars. He has 180 rushing/receiving yards for his career at BYU and did not see any significant rushing reps last year. Every now and then he would show up, like on his 18 yard reception against Boise State, and averaged 5 yards/carry against Utah State in only 4 carries. Out of high school Dye was a 3-star prospect who was a deep threat down in Texas, averaging 19.5 yards per catch and 7.6 yards per carry.

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Pictured: New BYU Offensive Coordinator, Jeff Grimes, speaks to the media via heraldextra.com

New Faces:

BYU has not yet signed any new recruits who are specifically running backs. Similarly, we do not expect any returning missionaries who are specifically running backs. However, every offseason (so far) Kalani hasn’t minded moving people around to different positions so we may see some transitions. Since those are nearly impossible to predict for sure without hearing it directly from the coaching staff, I will not attempt to do so.

For more information about the newest recruits, I encourage you to visit:

http://bluecougarfootball.blogspot.com/2017/12/byu-announces-first-13-members-of-2018.html

which has a comprehensive list of each.

Key Loses:

None

 

Notes:

  • *Ula Tolutau had off-field issues in 2017 and his status for 2018 is uncertain.
  • Other RB’s on the roster include Creed Richardson (RS SR,) Bracken El-Bakri (JR,) Kyle Griffitts (JR,) and Zachary Katoa (RS FR.)

The most successful BYU football seasons within the last 15 years consequently had a strong running game. In 2006, when John Beck had his impressive Senior campaign, his efforts were enhanced by an imposing performance by then all-time leading rusher Curtis Brown, who finished the season with 1,576 rushing/receiving yards and 11 TD’s with bruising back Fui Vakapuna tacking on another 532 rushing/receiving yards and another 11 TD’s.

For the Max Hall campaign, in 3 seasons between 2007 and 2009, BYU lost a grand total of 7 games – 7 games total!! In case you forgot, we lost 9 games this year. During those 3 seasons some kid name Harvey Unga set the school career rushing record with 3,446 rushing yards to go along with 1,085 receiving yards and 44 TD’s.

With a new offensive coordinator you can expect that each running back will get a fresh look and assessment of what they have to offer the team. Hopefully, BYU will be able to find our next great running back in a respectable line of mega-studs, pioneered by Doak Walker Award – which honors the top running back in college football – winner Luke Staley. However, since there was basically no turnover from last year’s squad, I still do not expect many surprises in regards to the depth chart going into Camp for the 2018 season.

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Pictured: Former BYU RB Luke Staley scores a touchdown against Air Force, via sltrib.com

Projected depth chart (given certain assumptions):
(compare to https://www.loyalcougars.com/football-roster/depth-chart/)

RB 1 (Workhorse) – Squally Canada
RB 2 – Ula Tolutau*
RB 3 – Riley Burt

Scat Back RB 1 – KJ Hall
SB RB 2 – Austin Kafentzis
SB RB 3 – Trey Dye

FB 1 – Brayden El-Bakri
FB 2 – Bracken El-Bakri

Translation: I expect Squally to retain the primary role and get the most carries, with Ula Tolutau* getting the 2nd most carries, then KJ Hall to be used primarily in the passing game (and subsequently lead the running back group in receiving yards again) and as a change of pace back with Kafentzis being brought in primarily to mix things up and give opposing defenses different looks.

>>> * See: Notes

Offensive Previews:
Offensive Line Preview
Tight Ends Preview
Wide Receivers Preview
Quarterbacks Preview

Defensive Previews:
Defensive Line Preview
Linebackers Preview

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