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BYU’s running backs willing to shoulder the load as offense replaces Zach Wilson

Returning stars Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa lead a group that is experienced, deep and explosive, says second-year RBs coach Harvey Unga

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BYU running back Tyler Allgeier rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2020, is back for more in 2021.

BYU running back Tyler Allgeier (25) looks back to see if he is in the clear as he runs for an 86-yard touchdown against Boise State in a college football game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Harvey Unga knows a thing or two about great running back play, having been an outstanding ball-carrier himself for BYU back in the day.

So when the Cougars’ second-year running backs coach says the group he’s assembled in Provo this season is eager to show it can carry the load until whichever quarterback selected to replace Zach Wilson gets up to speed, it is probably advantageous to listen.

“We have a really good group of guys in the running backs room, each with his own niche, or speciality, if you will,” Unga said at BYU’s football media day on June 17. “If we can stay healthy, we’re going to be set at that position.”

Staying healthy hasn’t been easy for BYU’s running backs for years, ardent followers of the program know. Last year, for instance, junior college transfer Hinckley Ropati sustained a knee injury in fall camp and redshirt freshman Sione Finau never totally returned from a knee injury he suffered in practice the previous season. Promising freshman Jackson McChesney suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in the season-opening romp over Navy.

“We have a really good group of guys in the running backs room, each with his own niche, or speciality, if you will. If we can stay healthy, we’re going to be set at that position.” — BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga

It was a good thing that Lopini Katoa stayed mostly healthy, and Tyler Allgeier emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher and perhaps the Cougars’ next great back. Allgeier is an NFL talent, Unga said.

“Tyler Allgeier got an opportunity to showcase his talents, and he delivered a phenomenal season,” said Unga, the Cougars’ career rushing yardage record-holder until Jamaal Williams came along and broke it in 2016.

Unga said he hopes “all the pressure” is on the RBs this season as Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover battle to be the starting quarterback.

“That is one of the things we talk about in our room, is carrying the load, carrying the burden, having the pressure. I want the pressure on us,” Unga said. “The more pressure we can take on us, I feel like will help out everybody else in the offense, especially with the new quarterbacks and stuff. So hopefully these guys take it on themselves.”

Sitting at the same table a few hours later during media day, Allgeier and Katoa said that is the plan, but they don’t discount the benefits of having a deep receiving corps as well.

“Between us and the receivers and tight ends, we should be fine while they choose the right person at quarterback,” said Allgeier, who rushed for 1,130 yards and 13 TDs last year. “I trust that the coaches will make the right decision, and then we will do all we can to help the new starter feel comfortable back there.”

Allgeier is entering his fourth season in the program, but he isn’t entirely sure it will be his last. He can count 2018 as a redshirt year since he played in only four games, and technically 2020 doesn’t have to count either because of COVID-19 and the NCAA allowing for an “extra year” due to the pandemic altering the season.

“I think of myself as a junior this year,” Allgeier said. “Or maybe I’m a redshirt sophomore. Who knows? As far as turning pro (after the season), we will see what happens. But I am always down for coming back another year. I love it here.”

If he does zoom up NFL draft boards this season, Allgeier’s remarkable story will be told time and again. He entered BYU as a walk-on because the Cougars were out of scholarships in 2018, then was moved to linebacker for awhile in 2019. He served notice that he was at RB to stay when he rushed for 132 yards on just 14 carries against Navy.

“I am blessed to have the opportunity to be in the position I am in,” he said. “It is always about making the most of opportunities that come your way. … I am trying to stay humble and have the mindset of staying hungry and being grateful for the opportunities.”

In somewhat of a surprise, the third and final running back listed on BYU’s post-spring depth chart was Miles Davis, who entered the program as a receiver out of Las Vegas. Davis got 15 carries for 96 yards last year, then had a fantastic spring as he grew more comfortable with the position.

“A lot of (Davis’ rise) is his play-making ability,” Unga said. “We had a speed and space drill, where guys had to make people miss, and he had a knack for it. He was good at it. And it was one of those things where he is a great wide receiver, but his ability to make people miss in a confined space was outstanding.”

As far as the rest of the room, the Cougars are hoping that McChesney, Ropati and Finau are healthy come preseason training camp on Aug. 4. Converted quarterback Mason Fakahua and converted linebacker Faka’osi Nasilai could also move into the mix.

“We have a fun group,” Unga said. “The energy the new guys bring is fun, but we also have experienced guys. It is a unique room. It is different. I have guys who came from wide receiver, quarterback, linebacker. I like it.”