Not many members of the BYU football team finished the 2022 season stronger than running back Hinckley Ropati.

The bowling ball-type back from Downey, California, emerged in November and December to help the Cougars beat Boise State, Utah Tech, Stanford and SMU when players ahead of the fourth-stringer on the depth chart were injured or ineffective.

“He is massive. I am like, ‘Oh man, he is taller than Chris Brooks. He is a big kid.’ So I am definitely impressed, for sure.” — BYU running back Hinckley Ropati on new RB Aidan Robbins

With leading rushers Chris Brooks and Lopini Katoa exhausting their eligibility after the New Mexico Bowl, it was believed that Ropati and Miles Davis would return in 2023 and duel to be RB1, along with perhaps Mason Fakahua and Jackson McChesney.

And when Fakahua was moved to the hybrid fullback/tight end position and McChesney took a medical retirement, the competition seemed even less diluted. However, coaches brought 1,000-yard rusher Aidan Robbins in from UNLV via the transfer portal, flipped four-star running back LJ Martin of El Paso, Texas, from Stanford, and moved bowl hero Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters from quarterback to running back.

Where does that leave the ever-positive Ropati?

Still smiling, as usual.

“I love it,” Ropati said of the increased competition in the running backs room. “Honestly, I was excited when we got Aidan. I saw him play, I watched his film to see what kind of cat we are bringing in. … With his experience, he only elevates the competition in the room, which makes everybody better.”

Martin arrives in June, while Robbins has missed the contact portions of spring camp — which resumed this week after players had last week off — after having had wrist surgery a few months ago.

That left Ropati, Davis and Utah State transfer Enoch Nawahine to shine in the spring scrimmage on March 31, and shine they did — especially Ropati.

He had 12 yards on four carries and also caught two passes for 17 yards. Davis got six touches — four carries and two catches — while Nawahine had five carries for 15 yards.

“I feel really good with the running backs group, because we know what Folau (Ropati) can do,” coach Kalani Sitake said after the first scrimmage. “He started to emerge the latter half of the season last year. … Once we get everybody healthy and going I think we are really going to like that group altogether.”

Ropati and Sitake said veteran Morgan Pyper, Olympus High walk-on Chase Hopkins and returned missionary Nukuluve Helu will provide much-needed depth to the RBs room.

A senior who transferred from Cerritos (California) College before the pandemic-altered 2020 season, Ropati is listed at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds. But while he’s clearly 215 pounds, or more, calling him 5-10 is probably a stretch.

No matter, he says.

“In a way, my (lack of height) helps me on the field,” he said, chuckling. “Sometimes those big (defensive) linemen can’t find me.”

That’s sort of what happened when Ropati had his breakout game last fall against Boise State. With Brooks out with a hamstring injury, Ropati finished with five carries for 28 yards and caught three passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in the 31-28 BYU win.

The Boise State game marked the first time Ropati touched the football since the Cougars lost 28-20 to Notre Dame in Las Vegas on Oct. 8. He fumbled on his only carry at Allegiant Stadium, and although he recovered the ball, he was benched the next three games against Arkansas, Liberty and East Carolina.

“Coaches definitely made sure I learned from that,” he said. “They stressed that I needed to improve my ball security. … I learned my lesson.”

After his heroics against Boise State, Ropati got 16 carries for 43 yards against Utah Tech — a school that he had committed to before a church mission to the Philippines. A week later, he carried the ball nine times for 85 yards in the 35-26 win at Stanford, and coaches were breathing easier about their RBs room in 2023.

Then Robbins was brought on board — and Ropati celebrated.

“He is massive,” Ropati said. “I am like, ‘Oh man, he is taller than Chris Brooks. He is a big kid.’ So I am definitely impressed, for sure.”

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After the 2022 season in which he finished with 189 rushing yards and 97 receiving yards, Ropati not only went to work on his ball security and pass-catching skills, he also endeavored to get quicker and faster.

Those traits have been on display throughout spring camp, and were evident at LaVell Edwards Stadium the final day of March.

“That was kind of the goal for the offseason — to get stronger, but also faster and quicker,” he said. “I’m happy with how it has gone so far.”

He’s also paying more attention in the film room in an effort to improve his preparation.

“Staying locked in mentally is also something I hope to improve on,” he said. “That, and being more of a leader in the room by knowing the plays and helping the younger guys learn the plays.

“When you know what you are doing out there, and you are confident out there, you can just go out there and play 100 miles an hour and not really second-guess anything. That has been the biggest change for me over the last season or so, is just being more confident in myself and my abilities.”

Ropati’s full name is Hinckley Folau Ropati, but family members, coaches and teammates often call him by his middle name — Folau. He’s named after the late Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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An older brother is named after Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th president of the church, while a younger brother is named after Thomas S. Monson, the 16th president of the church.

“My dad (Pologa Ropati) named us after those great men in hopes that we become great men like them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hinckley Ropati is dedicating his final season in Provo to his late mother Lina Folau, who raised seven children with Pologa Ropati.

“My mom was definitely my No. 1 supporter,” Hinckley Ropati told the “Coug Connect” Podcast. “Everything I am and all that I am is because of her. The way I approach the game, the way I love, the way I approach my relationships (is because of her).”

BYU Cougars running back Hinckley Ropati (7) carries the ball against Utah Tech at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU Cougars running back Hinckley Ropati (7) carries the ball against Utah Tech at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Ropati finished the 2022 season on a high note and is expected to be a contributor again in 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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