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New BYU football assistant coach AJ Steward is a stranger no more

Running backs coach AJ Steward comes to BYU from Rice University.
Running backs coach AJ Steward comes to BYU from Rice University.
Photo courtesy Rice University

PROVO —Strangers no more.

AJ Steward stepped into his role as BYU’s running backs coach barely knowing his boss, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. The athletes he’d coach were total strangers. He came aboard the week of national letter-of-intent signing day a month ago.

Fast-forward to BYU’s first week of spring football practice, and he talks about Cougar running backs as if he’s been with them for years. Steward, who came to Provo from Rice University, believes he’s found a coaching soulmate in Grimes.

“He’s very detail-oriented, and being disciplined is the main focus,” said Steward.

“It’s all about doing the little things correctly; each step matters, everything you do on the field has to be detailed. I love that. Honestly, that is the way I am as a coach as well. It’s been great to be able to work with someone who has pretty much similar philosophies as far as how guys are hustling to the ball in practice and protecting the football. If you take care of the little things, the big picture is going look good for you.”

After a week into 15 allowable practice sessions, Steward says his goal for the Cougar backfield is to set a foundation. “I want our footwork to be perfect and pristine. I want us to hit our aiming tracks and targets the way they’re drawn up. Any technique we use on the field, I want to be perfect now so nobody has to think about it when a guy is running at them full speed in a game.”

Steward said if a guy off the street came to BYU’s practices, the thing that would hit them right away is seeing guys fly around — just hustling like their lives depended on it.

“There is a reason for everything we are doing, Everyone is working, nobody is standing around. All 22 periods of practice are geared towards being better players and coaches. If you are there for five minutes, it will jump out at you.”

I asked Steward to break down his halfbacks and fullbacks now that you know them.

Zach Katoa, 6-1, 205, freshman: “He’s doing a really good job. He just plays hard every play. His energy is great; he’s a great leader by example. He does everything you ask him to do. He plays at full speed, and, even if he makes a mistake, he does it at a hundred miles an hour. I like that about him.”

Squally Canada, 5-11, 210, junior: “He’s a veteran; he’s been around the block a few times. He’s savvy with the little things you can’t coach like his vision and his technique in different areas. It is evident he has played a lot of football so that’s been beneficial to him early in camp.”

Riley Burt, 6-1, 215, sophomore: “He is doing a great job of getting comfortable. He’s a bigger back and I’ve been working with him at getting behind his pads a little more to utilize his frame and not run upright. I think he’s made a big point of correcting that this spring. I see a new guy from just Monday to Friday as far as his energy and attention to detail.”

Kavika Fonua. 6-0, 212, junior: “Kavika is doing a great job just getting to the ball with his energy as well. He has a great understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, and that makes a big difference in how he approaches practice and work.”

Austin Kafentzis, 6-1, 196, junior: “He is a great athlete. He has a unique skill set in what he can do in the passing game and he’s got great feet. He’s been working on just polishing up to be a true running back. He’s moved around a lot at many positions in his career and he is now focusing on being a true running back and attaining those attributes to be an every-down back, not just a specialist in the run game or coming in as a wildcat quarterback. He’s truly trying to be more well-rounded as a pass protector and learn all the intricacies to be successful. “

Brayden El Bakri, 6-0, 240: “Brayden is doing a great job. He is a great leader for our group. He is very vocal, and he is going to hold everyone accountable. He is very athletic and is displaying a lot in his skill set. We didn’t watch a lot of film of these guys coming in, because we wanted to see what they could do in our scheme. He’s really impressed us with a lot of different skills as a fullback.”

Kyle Griffitts, 6-3, 230, junior: “With El Bakri, Kyle is doing a great job moving forward as a fullback. He has many of the attributes I’ve been trying to describe in what we want as far as being able to catch the ball out of the backfield and just be more multiple instead of being a downhill head butter.”

Steward also has 6-1, 240 sophomore Ula Tulutau, who he says is nursing an injury, trying to keep his weight down to enhance his speed. “Ula is limited right now. KJ Hall, (5-9, 182 sophomore ) is rehabbing a knee after ACL surgery and taking mental reps.

“Collectively, everyone is making progress. That is all you can ask for as a running back coach, that guys take what you present to them in the meeting room and in film sessions and from drill to drill and just continue to get better every rep.”

Spring. Fundamentals and a season of acquaintances.