Chris Brooks is impressing the ranks.
He’s sold himself to coaches, made himself a hit with the media herds, and is settling into Provo as a BYU football player, a transplant from the Pac-12.
At one time Harvey Unga was BYU’s all-time leading rusher. Now, employed as his alma mater’s running backs coach, Unga is convinced Cal transfer running back Brooks will elevate BYU’s offense.
Unga’s seen enough. Just having Brooks in the team room has been productive. Seeing him on the field sealed the deal.
At the midway point in BYU’s spring football practice, I cornered Unga and asked him what he knew about BYU’s offense today that he did not know three weeks ago.
The first thing out of his mouth was the name of the former leading rusher for the Cal Bears. In 2021, Brooks rushed for 607 yards on 116 carries and scored four touchdowns. He gained more than 1,700 yards for Cal during his career.
“Chris Brooks has definitely been a surprise,” said Unga. “I’m definitely grateful for him. He brings intensity into the room that’s infectious. But he’s also really carried himself professionally. It’s fun to see. There have been times where I’ve kind of wondered if we’d found the right guy when recruiting, but Chris is an awesome addition to a great team; a great person.”
Unga said Brooks is exactly what the coaching staff looked for in replacing Tyler Allgeier, who set a school record for rushing yards in a single season this past campaign.
“On the field, he is what we wanted and expected and he definitely elevates the level of play not just in the room, but the entire offense. It’s been fun to have him and it’s been a huge blessing. I didn’t know going into spring ball it would turn out like this so it’s been fun to see.”
The other thing Unga knows now that he didn’t back in February?
The depth of coach Darrell Funk’s offensive line.
Unga said BYU’s coaching staff knew going into spring football they’d inherited a lot of experienced offensive linemen from the past season. Because of injuries, a lot of young players were called into action. As a result, nine players who have started games are back.
Now, says Unga, other young guys are stepping up, including Oregon freshman transfer Kingsley Suamataia, a five-star recruit who played at Orem High. Suamataia was ranked as the nation’s No. 36 recruit in 2021.
“It’s cool to see there’s not going to be a drop-off, but the next lineman coming in when called upon, well, there’s not much of a drop-off,” said Unga.
Depth-wise, Brooks and the other running backs will have a stronger O-line to run behind than Allgeier had last season. They range from 6-foot-8 and more than 315 pounds to the smaller guys at 6-5 or 6-4, 295. Junior right tackle Blake Freeland is ranked by PFF as the No. 7 offensive lineman and Clark Barrington is No. 10 by the same evaluators. The Cougars get back center Connor Pay and Joe Tukuafu and a healthy Harris LaChance. Keanu Saleapaga 6-6, 310, returns after missing parts of seasons since 2018.
Unga said looking at the roster and seeing nine guys who’ve started is a nice situation. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been around that kind of situation before.”
Unga knows how important the hogs are up front. Back in his playing day, five years into Robert Anae’s transition under Bronco Mendenhall, Unga ran behind the likes of Houston and Matt Reynolds, Jason Speredon, Nick Alletto and Terence Brown.
“Those guys will always be my guys, but this group is a special group.”
Unga said it’s tough to compare today with yesteryear. He won’t say which group is better, choosing to say instead, “They’re different.”
“It makes me sound old,” laughed Unga, “but back in my day, well, it’s funny how the game has evolved. We played a lot of smash-mouth football where you’d go man on man and just try to bull people over. Now, we have more finesse running backs and linemen who can get out in space and deliver blocks, being able to move while being just bigger and just as physical. It’s fun to see how skilled these guys (running backs) are.”
Stanford transfer fullback Houston Heimuli is more accurately categorized as a smash-nose back.
Unga said he is impressed at how offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick continually brings in exciting aspects to the Cougar attack, how he uses the backs, how slot players are assimilated into the offense.
“I trust what he does and how he utilizes our running backs in the offense. He’s always coming up with ways to attack a defense. I like it.”
And Brooks will be a key.