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Tyler Allgeier, the ‘accidental running back,’ could become one of BYU’s most prolific backs ever

California product has endured his share of ups and downs in life, and with the Cougars, but he’s clearly hitting his stride

BYU running back Tyler Allgeier warms up before game against Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Oct. 9, 2021.
BYU running back Tyler Allgeier warms up before game against Boise State at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Tyler Allgeier has been a revelation on the football field the last two seasons, but running and tackling have been the easy part. Getting him there was the real challenge.

With no scholarship and little money, he took a side job stocking shelves at Walmart in Provo. His mother, Ester, borrowed thousands of dollars for his schooling that she is still trying to repay. Long before that she began working 11- and 12-hour days to raise her son and daughter as a single mother. To save money they lived in her crowded childhood home with her parents.

“We do what it takes,” she says.

Allgeier was so discouraged about his financial situation and his mother’s sacrifices that following his second season of football, in 2019 — one in which he had done star turns on both offense and defense — he wondered if he should transfer. But in January 2020, he finally was awarded a scholarship.

BYU got a bargain. In the last two seasons alone, Allgeier has rushed for 1,805 yards and 22 touchdowns in 18 games, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He has more than 2,000 yards rushing and receiving. With 1 1⁄2 seasons of eligibility remaining, he is on pace to break Jamaal Williams’ school career rushing record of 3,901 yards and Harvey Unga’s career record for rushing touchdowns of 36.

But if not for injuries to his teammate, he might never have gotten the chance to show what he could do as a ball carrier. As a freshman in 2018, he saw spot duty at running back — nine carries in four games — which wasn’t enough to help his cause. The following season he found himself bumped down the depth chart to fifth string.

He played only on special teams the first three games and then was approached by linebackers coach Ed Lamb. “He said, ‘If they’re not going to use you on offense, we’ll use you on defense.’” The very next week he played linebacker against Washington. In all, he collected 26 tackles in eight games and was the team’s best defensive player in at least one game, but with two games left in the season he was asked to fill in at running back because of injuries at that position.

“The defensive coaches loved him,” says Unga, “but there wasn’t much of a discussion (about moving him back to offense). He originally came over as running back.”

In the season-finale, against Hawaii, Allgeier ran for a team-high 77 yards on just eight carries and that cemented his place on the team. In 2020, Allgeier, the accidental running back, ran for 1,130 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per carry for a team that finished with an 11-1 record and a No. 11 ranking.

“To be honest, last season he was definitely a surprise,” says Unga, a former NFL draft pick who is now Allgeier’s position coach. “We had a glimpse of what he could do, but I don’t think anyone realized the extent of how good of a running back he is. He caught us by surprise. He does everything.”

Allgeier, who is 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, might be the only Division I player who has led his team in tackles in one game and rushing in another. In a 2019 game against Boise State, he had a team-leading nine tackles — all solo. In the 2020 rematch, he had a team-leading 123 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 14 carries, including an 86-yard touchdown run.

“I don’t know what he can’t do,” says Unga. “He can catch. He has good speed. Good vision. He’s physical but he has enough wiggle to make guys miss.”

For all his exploits as a running back, Allgeier might forever be known at BYU for a spectacular defensive play he made this season against nationally ranked Arizona State. It was late in the third quarter. ASU had cut BYU’s 21-7 halftime lead to 21-17 and owned all the momentum when linebacker Merlin Robertson intercepted a BYU pass and had a clear path down the sideline for a touchdown.

He had covered 60 yards when Allgeier caught him at the 15-yard line. Allgeier placed his left hand on Robertson’s left shoulder and used it to launch himself into the air, then he pulled his right arm back and threw a haymaker punch down onto the ball, which fell to the turf. The Cougars recovered and went on to win the game.

“Tyler Allgeier’s strip on that third-quarter interception return might be the greatest forced fumble in the history of college football!” tweeted Trevor Matich, the former BYU and NFL center turned broadcaster.

Unga said simply, “That was one of the coolest plays I’ve ever seen in football.”

Under the radar

It’s difficult to understand what college recruiters didn’t see in Allgeier as a prep player. He collected more than 5,000 yards and 56 touchdowns for Kaiser High in Fontana, California, plus another 126 tackles on defense. “They said, ‘Tyler’s too this, he has no hips, he runs straight up …,” says Ester. I told him, ‘Just keep working hard.’” Southern Nazarene, a Division II school, was the lone school to recruit him until BYU assistant coach Ilaisa Tuiaki accidentally discovered him. He was scouting another player when Allgeier got his attention. Allgeier was offered a preferred walk-on spot on the roster.

Allgeier, a Catholic, visited predominantly white Provo and BYU — which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ. “He loved it,” says Ester. “He felt like he belonged there.” But moving there was problematic. The walk-on angle is a tired one in college football media coverage — there are hundreds of those stories around the country — but for Allgeier and his mother it was a formidable financial hardship.

Ester has lived in the same small three-bedroom home for her entire 47 years, right in the heart of Fontana, an industrial city 50 miles east of Los Angeles. “It was a rough area,” Tyler says. The first time Ester tried to move out she found out she was pregnant with Tyler; the second time she tried to move out she found out she was pregnant with Tyler’s sister. The next time she tried to move out her father was diagnosed with cancer. So she has stayed.

“We made it work,” says Ester.

Hard times

She and the two children lived in one bedroom of the house, which they shared with her parents and brother, who is described by Ester and Tyler as a recovering addict. Her father worked days, her mom nights. “My dad wasn’t around when I was growing up,” says Tyler. Ester put the kids in day care while she worked from 6 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. at an auto auction. With only a couple of years of college behind her, she became the payroll and commercial account supervisor and later, after she was told she couldn’t advance without a degree, she took over as lot operations supervisor. After school, the kids went to the gym or to practice for whatever sport they were playing at the time. She used sports to keep her kids occupied.

“I saved a lot of money instead of having a house payment,” says Ester. “I put it into the kids’ sports. They were constantly in sports.”

Which eventually led to the invitation to visit Provo in the spring of 2018 and his decision to join the team as a walk-on, but he worried aloud about finances. “I’ll make it work,” Ester told him. For years she had told her children they had no choice — they had to earn a college degree. Tyler could be the first member of his family to do so.

Anyway, he moved to Provo and she began borrowing money to pay for her son’s apartment and schooling. She still owes $28,000. Tyler felt he owed it to his mom to help, so he took a job stocking shelves at Walmart, working 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the offseason, but it was unworkable once football began. “He was just trying to help me out,” says Ester.

‘The walk-on mindset’

Following that breakthrough 2019 season, Allgeier assessed his situation and was discouraged. “What should we do if I don’t get a scholarship?” he asked his mother. “School is expensive and you’ve already done so much. I don’t know what else you can do. We can’t afford to do this one more year.” She told him to talk to his coaches. BYU head coach Kalani Sitake told him he had planned to put him on scholarship; he had been waiting for seniors to graduate to free up more scholarships.

Looking back, Allgeier says, “I’ve learned a lot and my work ethic has never changed. Honestly, it’s the walk-on (mindset). You’re never comfortable. The four- and five-star athletes get comfortable and don’t work ’cause they’ve made it. I got the scholarship. I just crossed off one goal and moved on to the next — to graduate and go to the league (NFL).”

He credits his mother for getting this far. “She sacrificed so much for me. She worked so much to get us what we needed. She was the rock.