BYU (1-6) at East Carolina (1-6)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MDT Dowdy-Ficklin Stadium
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
PROVO — Sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Mississippi, on the eve of last Saturday’s BYU-Mississippi State game, Brayden and Bracken El-Bakri allowed the possibilities to dance around in their heads.
The pair of brothers (Brayden is two years older than Bracken) are walk-ons and Brighton High products. They knew that there was a chance they could end up on the field together for the first time as Cougars.
At one time not long ago, that seemed improbable — in part because they were playing on different sides of the ball. But last week, Bracken was switched from the defensive line to fullback, the same position Brayden plays.
Sure enough, the Brothers El-Bakri ended up in the same backfield at Davis Wade Stadium for a handful of plays in a 35-10 loss to MSU.
“I knew my older brother would be playing a little bit of tailback. We were dreaming, especially in the hotel in Mississippi. ‘What if we get in the backfield together? That would be so cool,′” Bracken said. “That was my very first play in any college football game. I was looking around at the crowd and hearing the cowbells. You couldn’t have written a story any better than that.”
“It’s always a dream to play college football, right? Then playing with your brother? Why don’t you just score that dream and put a cherry on top?” Brayden said. “We were in the hotel room, talking about what could happen. He could throw a big block. And he did. It would have been amazing and special if it had been on the beach at practice.”
Injuries at the running back position, and the game plan, helped open the door for Bracken and Brayden to play together.
“We thought Mississippi State would struggle a little with the big backs,” said coach Kalani Sitake.
Bracken, who is a 6-foot-3, 261-pound sophomore, will never forget the first time he took the field Saturday, and looking to Brayden, who is a 6-foot, 240-pound junior, to calm his nerves.
“It was the coolest thing ever, getting down, looking at my older brother and thinking, ‘Heck yeah!’” Bracken said. “I was a little nervous at first. I had trouble getting set at first because I was so excited to hit somebody. But, after that, my brother told me to calm down and just play. He said, ‘It’s just you and me having fun.’”
Bracken played eight plays — six with his brother.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find brothers that are better friends than we are,” Bracken said.
Leading up to the game, Brayden taught Bracken a crash course about how to play the fullback position, and they watched hours of film together. At 10 o’clock at night during the week, Bracken would be doing his homework when Brayden suddenly would give him a scenario on the field and quiz him on what he should do.
“Because he’s helped me so much, I’ve picked it up quick,” Bracken said. “In practice, I’m watching everything he does, his steps, the way he drinks his water. I want to be just like him.”
“We live together,” Brayden said. “It was pretty easy for me to say, ‘Hey, let’s learn everything.’ He did that in a matter of days. He picked it up really well. After he got off his mission, I knew he would be an asset to the team and could help us. He’s a strong, hard-working kid. I was super excited to take him under my wing and teach him the things he’d be doing.”
While Brayden has been in the program for a couple of years as a walk-on after serving a mission to Uruguay, Bracken followed his brother’s footsteps after recently returning home from his mission to Dallas, Texas.
The only difference is Bracken arrived at BYU as a defensive lineman. He started out on the scout team.
“Then they gave me the opportunity to start traveling as a defensive lineman and later, the coaches said, ‘If your brother plays a little bit of tailback, we’d love to see what you could do as a fullback,’” Bracken said. “At first, I thought they were playing around. Then last week, they gave me the opportunity. They told me to take some snaps at fullback.”
Bracken said that he and his brother are proud to be walk-ons.
“You have this pressure because you have to fight for your meal every day,” he explained. “It adds this extra jump-without-the-rope kind of pressure that’s awesome.”
Quarterback Tanner Mangum was happy to see the El-Bakri brothers on the field together.
“I love them. They’re two of my favorite people on the team,” he said. “They’re unbelievable teammates and friends. They’re good guys and they play so hard. They go all-out on every play. They block hard, they run hard. So it’s fun to see their hard work pay off. I think they’re only going to get better as the season goes on.”
Bracken remembers when he first arrived at BYU and someone asked him and Brayden if there were a chance that they could play in the backfield together.
“We were like, ‘Dude, you’re crazy,’” Bracken said. “Then, when we were in Mississippi, we kept saying, ‘What if it happens?’”
And it happened.
“It’s awesome," Bracken said, "to play with your best friend and your brother at the same time.”