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BYU was a ‘better fit’ than USC for Rice graduate-transfer RB Emmanuel Esukpa, now slated to step in for injured pal Ty’Son Williams

Texas native spurned overtures from the Trojans to follow former Rice running backs coach AJ Steward to Provo, and he’s glad he did

Brigham Young Cougars running back Emmanuel Esukpa (33) celebrates his touchdown with teammates in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
BYU running back Emmanuel Esukpa (33) celebrates his touchdown with teammates in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — Shortly after he entered the transfer portal last winter, Rice running back Emmanuel Esukpa was contacted by a member of the USC coaching staff.

The glamor and glitz of nearby Hollywood, the opportunity to play for one of college football’s most legendary and storied programs in a Power Five conference, the famed USC song girls, the catchy “Fight On” fight song and a lot more were brought up in an attempt to get the graduate-transfer to visit the school’s Los Angeles campus.

Instead, Esukpa chose to visit sleepy ol’ Provo and BYU.

“Just a better fit for me, and my familiarity with the former running backs coach at Rice (AJ Steward) was a big part of it. Shoutout to him,” Esukpa told the Deseret News last August. “BYU was not only a better fit for me as a player, but as a person off the field as well.”

Just look at Esukpa now.

The devout Christian is a regular at the CenterPoint Church in Orem and about to be the featured running back in BYU’s offense.

The 5-foot-11, 225-pound senior will likely get the nod as the Cougars’ go-to guy on Saturday when they travel to Toledo to face the 2-1 Rockets at the Glass Bowl (10 a.m. MDT, ESPN Plus). That after Esukpa, whose nickname is “Supe,” played a role in BYU’s 30-27 win over then-No. 24 USC two weeks ago.

“Yeah, big-time football with great players and a great coaching staff,” Esukpa said Tuesday, when asked if he’s happy with his decision. “That’s exactly what I expected it to be and that is exactly what I am getting.”

Esukpa isn’t happy with the way he’s moved up the depth chart at RB1 — his best friend on the team, fellow grad-transfer running back Ty’Son Williams, sustained a season-ending knee injury in the 45-19 loss at Washington last week — but he said he’s ready for a Williams-like workload.

“Really, really sad to see Ty’Son go down,” he said. “I am in the same situation as him as a grad-transfer, so I feel for him. That easily could have been me.”

Esukpa (pronounced: Eh-SUPA) has carried the ball 18 times for 80 yards and touchdown and caught two passes for 12 yards after missing the opener against Utah with a minor injury. The other experienced running back on the depth chart, sophomore Lopini Katoa, has rushed 11 times for 23 yards and caught four passes for 20 yards.

Steward declined to specify whether Esukpa or Katoa will start Saturday, and also said it hasn’t been determined yet which other running backs will make the trip for what will be BYU’s second appearance in the state of Ohio.

“Supe and Lopini have played all season,” Steward said. “They have started multiple games in their careers up to this point and so this was already part of the plan. These guys were going to get in against Toledo no matter what.”

Now, what they do will matter greatly, because Williams will be hard to replace.

Esukpa said his knowledge of the offense, preparation ability and mental toughness are his strengths. He hails from Grand Prairie, Texas, graduated from Mansfield High in the Metroplex and played in 29 games at Rice from 2015-18, totaling 778 yards and six touchdowns on 196 carries.

“I feel like my maturity also will help me just extend into the role,” he said.

Steward said Williams will still make the trip to Toledo, which is rare for an injured player, because he is valuable as a team leader.

“The younger running backs in our group, they admire Ty’s work ethic and just when he speaks, people listen,” Steward said. “He’s worked his butt off for us. He should be along with us in this journey.”

Esukpa’s running style is similar to what Williams showed in averaging 5.4 yards per carry, but the Texan might not be as skilled of a receiver as the South Carolinian. Rice didn’t throw the ball a lot when Esukpa was there.

“My energy is the same,” Esukpa said. “I am just going to have to play the same, work the same at practice, work the same in the weight room and just do what I need to do to get us the win.”

Katoa said he and Esukpa received roughly the same amount of reps in practice Monday and Tuesday, and both have been prepared since preseason training camp opened in late July to be the workhorse back if needed.

“I feel ready, just like any other week,” Katoa said, adding that he put on 10-15 pounds in the offseason so he wouldn’t be as injury prone as he was last year and could break more tackles. “I just wanted to put myself in the best situation to succeed.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Esukpa was talented enough upon leaving Rice that several schools were interested in his services, not just BYU and USC. He wasn’t an “insurance policy” in case Williams went down.

“Supe has got a great combination of speed and power,” Grimes said. “A guy with his size and speed, he’s a load. You saw Saturday when he stuck his foot in the ground and went north and south. He can run through arm tackles and be a physical, slicing runner. And so we will play to those strengths.”

• • •

Cougars on the air

BYU (2-2) at Toledo (2-1)

At the Glass Bowl, Toledo, Ohio

Saturday, 10 a.m. (MDT)

TV: ESPN Plus (subscription)

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM