So, is there anyone left for BYU quarterbacks to hand the ball off to?

Of course. But recently, you gotta admit, the Cougar backfield has looked like a fire drill.

Running backs have left Provo in droves the past four months.

Marcus Whalen is gone on a different bus than Rey Brathwaite — both headed out of town. Whalen should end up in Cedar City. Brathwaite will put in for the NFL's supplemental draft. But also joining that duo is Thomas Stancil, a freshman who lasted two years before he was asked to leave. Stancil may end up at one of those Cal-State Something schools or drop in at a junior college. The door is open for Stancil to return to BYU someday.

Then there's Elder Fui Vakapuna. After the former East High star looked impressive in his brief appearances in 2003, he left for an LDS mission to Carlsbad, Calif., and won't be back until 2006.

That leaves red-shirt sophomore Curtis Brown and junior Fahu Tahi to carry the load. They're capable, with the potential to be pretty good.

But if Brown and Tahi go down, is the Cougar backfield exterminated?

A legion of Cougar hand-wringers would say yes. It would mean no depth, no experience, no chemistry, no developed talent and just further frustration with rushing, blocking and pass catching.

The battalion of optimists would say: No, the talent is there. Guys just need chances.

For speculation's sake, I asked head coach Gary Crowton if he was playing with Brown, Tahi and a game of mumblety-peg this fall.

Crowton doesn't believe so. First, Brown and Tahi were ahead of Whalen this spring. Brathwaite's loss hurts, but he was in trouble on the sidelines against Utah in the 2003 finale.

Second, in BYU's five-receiver sets that use a lot of one-back and no-back formations, he doesn't need a quorum of a dozen at the running back slot.

Third, in the 12-2 season of 2001, Crowton primarily used one player, Luke Staley, at running back. And, in his finest hour as a college coach, back in his Louisiana Tech days, he used NCAA record-breaking receiver Troy Edwards (280 catches for 4,352 yards) at both receiver and running back.

Fourth, and this is my, not Crowton's, observation: In 2003, rival Utah lost Brandon Warfield for a chunk of the year and the Ute offense performed adequately with other players stepping up, especially quarterback Alex Smith (452 yards on 149 carries).

Fifth, using the Troy Edwards philosophy, Crowton believes he has talent that could step in if needed in new recruits who could be hybrid receiver/runners. They include transfer Michael Morris and incoming freshmen B.J. Mathis, Austin Collie and Antwuan Harris, who has been clocked at 10.4 in the 100 meters.

Already deployed in the "Edwards" thought process is returned missionary Bryce Mahuika, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound freshman from Washington. Mahuika may have been out of football for three years, but he raised a few eyebrows in the Student Athlete Center last week goofing around and registering a 40-inch vertical — better than any BYU basketball player from this past season.

Sixth, and this is Crowton's go-to-the-well-if-needed thinking: He has return specialist Brett Cooper who could move over and take handoffs. If pressed, he could look at sophomore linebacker K.C. Bills (6-1, 220). Bills is a Super Prep and Prep Star All-American out of Colorado's Arapahoe High, where he gained more than 1,600 yards and 21 touchdowns playing the position as a second-choice hobby.

So, for the sake of argument, yes, losing Brathwaite and Whalen hurt BYU's depth at running back. Brathwaite was the team's best offensive weapon last year — a game-breaker and record holder for the longest play in school history (99 yards). Whalen is an extremely strong runner who gets better as a game winds on.

But those guys are history. Gone. Done.

Are there solutions? Backups? Alternatives?

In May, it's all in the eye of the beholder.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com