PROVO — In 2016, BYU fullback Brayden El-Bakri scored the first touchdown of the Kalani Sitake era, but it was last season that he earned considerable notoriety for making some big plays.
For example, in September, the 6-foot, 240-pound senior scored a touchdown at Utah State on a 26-yard reception from quarterback Beau Hoge on a trick play.
Then, in October, on a first-quarter kickoff in the opening minutes of BYU’s 41-20 victory over San Jose State in Provo, El-Bakri sprinted down the field and leveled Spartan kick returner Rahshead Johnson, who fumbled. El-Bakri made the ferocious — and legal — hit and recovered the ball all in one motion.
Amid a dismal season with plenty of lowlights, El-Bakri furnished a couple of the most memorable highlights.
Despite his contributions on special teams and in the backfield, the Brighton High product is still a walk-on.
Naturally, El-Bakri would like to be on scholarship, but he’s not complaining about it.
“Everybody would hope that that would change, but I’m not going to have a bad attitude or anything,” he said. “I’m just going to be out here and play the sport that I love. I know the coaching staff is doing everything that they can for me.”
The physical fullback isn’t one to feel entitled — his walk-on mentality is a key to his success.
“I try to take the approach of, don’t forget where I came from and I kind of try to play with a chip on my shoulder always,” he said. “I try to forget all of that and just play as if it’s my first year.”
In a way, it’s like El-Bakri’s first year all over again as he learns yet another new offensive scheme.
“This is my fourth offensive coaching staff change. It’s very similar to the other changes,” said El-Bakri, who arrived at BYU in 2012 before serving an LDS mission to Uruguay. “You have to try to forget everything else and re-learn everything they’re teaching you. Football is football, no matter what happens. You just transfer the knowledge but you pick up a lot of new stuff along the way.”
What is the fullback’s role in the new offense?
“A fullback’s role is pretty much the same in every offense — stick your head in a hole and hit someone. I love it,” he said. “It’s my favorite thing. I’m glad to be able to block for great running backs, great quarterbacks and great receivers. It’s a lot of fun.”
In 2017, El-Bakri caught nine passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, and he rushed 17 times for 67 yards and a TD.
Coaches like El-Bakri’s influence on and off the field.
“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,” said running backs coach AJ Steward. “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.”
El-Bakri is comfortable with Steward, who is in his first year at BYU.
“I really like and respect our running backs coach. He’s awesome and we’re learning a lot of good stuff that will help us this year,” El-Bakri said. “He’s a Christian man. He really likes to push us and help us become better men.”
And he enjoys the running back group that he plays with, guys like Squally Canada, Zachary Katoa and Kavika Fonua.
“I’ve always expected big things from my brothers in the running back group,” El-Bakri said. “We’re excited. There’s a lot of stuff going on with this offense, and it’s going to be a lot of fun once we nail down what we’re supposed to do.”
Last year in mid-October, El-Bakri’s younger brother, Bracken, who’s also a walk-on, was switched from defensive line to fullback. The El-Bakri brothers had their dreams come true when they ended up in the backfield together for a handful of plays in a 35-10 loss at Mississippi State. Brayden played tailback, and he rushed five times for 20 yards.
During the spring, Bracken has been switched back to the defensive line.
“He’s doing good. He plays D-tackle now,” Brayden said. Then he added with a smile, “He’s like Darth Vader; he’s joined the Dark Side.”
The El-Bakris play on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage but they both know what it takes to be a walk-on.
“You have this pressure because you have to fight for your meal every day,” Bracken told the Deseret News last year. “It adds this extra jump-without-the-rope kind of pressure that’s awesome.”
Brayden probably couldn’t have described it better himself.