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Countdown to Kickoff (97): Who will be the starting running back for BYU?

Oh come oh come Emmanuellllllllll.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The football season might seem in the distance but here at Vanquish the Foe we’re counting down the days until the first game against the Utes. To help ease out way unto the season we’re going to spend every day exploring a specific question pertaining to BYU Football. Some of the questions will focus on important topics (offensive play calling) and others will explore the subjects of a rather...inconsequential nature. Today we’re going to talk about the running backs.

The year is 2097. BYU’s new offensive coordinator Bxyent Bednar (great grandson of Elder David A. Bednar) steps up to the media for the first press scrum of fall camp. At this time in football history the game has evolved (or devolved) to the point where running the football en vogue. The single wing offense replaces the spread and only a handful of football teams throw a forward pass more the five times a game. The changes in the game notwithstanding, Coach Bednar prepares himself for an onslaught of questions about the quarterback position.

“How are you feeling about the depth at quarterback this year? Do you see much competition between the 5th and 6th string guys? How do you plan to pay homage to LaVell Edwards with your offensive play-calling in the passing game? Is your quarterback group spiritually prepared for challenges that the Church & State Conference (founded in 2077) present on a weekly basis?”

If it’s 2019 or 2097, the BYU Football community will exist in a state of quarterback obsession. Blame it on the string of legendary quarterbacks BYU produced in the LaVell era or the game’s obsession with position that produces charismatic leaders, either way a love for QBs is here to stay.

Running backs, on the other hand, still play a pivotal role in the offense (particularly in the offense the Jeff Grimes has installed) but based on the amount of discussion and coverage that the running backs receive, they might as well be offensive lineman. Football has shifted away from the single workhorse running back and almost every team in the country has adopted the running back by committee approach.

BYU is no different. Since the departure of Jamaal Williams the Cougars have depended on a group of running backs to get the job done. This year will be no different as BYU inherits graduate transfers Ty’Son Williams (South Carolina) and Emmanuel Esukpa (Rice) to fill the void created by the departures of Squally Canada, Matt Hadley and Riley Burt. Adding those two to Lopini Katoa, Tyler Allgeier, Kavika Fonua and Sione Finau, and BYU has plenty of good number of ball carriers.

So the question remains, who will be the starter?

The cheap but ultimately try answer here is, it doesn’t really matter. Unless its necessary that BYU has one single running back that carries the load, then it won’t matter who is listed as the number one running back on the depth chart. Instead of focusing on who will be the starter, the question we might ask is, who can provide the some level of versatility?

When a team starts throwing a bunch of running backs into the mix, it can be easy for a team to start pigeon-holing each back into a very specific role. You can have a “between the tackles” running back, a shifty scat back who is great catching passes out of the backfield or even the running back who really excels in pass protection.

It’s great to have these divided special forces but if each is only a one trick pony, it can tip off the defense when they’re on the field. In baseball, it doesn’t matter if a pitcher can throw 98 MPH if he can’t back it up with a secondary off-speed pitch. Similarly, running backs need to provide more than one quality skill in order to help the offense thrive.

BYU fans were spoiled with Jamaal Williams who could really do it all; we shouldn’t expect someone like him to come from this current crop. The good news for BYU fans is the continued presence of running backs coach AJ Steward. In 2018, the offense saw marked improvement from Squally Canada (running with Jamaal-like aggression) the emergence of Lopinia Katoa (5.6 yards per carry) and the return of Matt Hadley (5.3 yards per carry). Along with the rest of the offensive staff, Steward really seemed to bring out the best in his unit and we’ll look for that to be the case again in 2019.

The other question will be who can stay healthy. It’s a foregone conclusion that at least one of the backs will suffer a setback at some point. Ideally they don’t happen consecutively leaving us with our last option (see Utah game). Workload management and recovery will play a huge role as we get into the second half of the season.

OK so back to the original question since that’s probably why you came here. It’s hard to say who will be the “starter” but since Lopini Katoa has one year of experience with the offense I’d say he has a head-start in front of the two transfers. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ty’son Williams eventually takes on more of the workload as the season progresses. Of course this could all be wrong and out of nowhere Jackson McChesney morphs into an every-down back. We’ll probably swing back to this topic as fall camp approaches.