It remains to be seen if the summer departures of two running backs — grad transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole and freshman Bruce Garrett — BYU football coaches were planning to utilize this season will eventually test the Cougars’ depth at the position.
What is clear through five games, however, is that the guys who stuck around — most notably junior Lopini Katoa and sophomore Tyler Allgeier — are more than capable of carrying the load if they can remain healthy. Another running back who was expected to make a difference, redshirt freshman Jackson McChesney, sustained a season-ending injury, torn ligaments in his foot, in the Cougars’ 55-3 season-opening win over Navy and is out for the season.
Sitake and running backs coach Harvey Unga said sophomore Sione Finau has been practicing the past few weeks and is expected to make his season debut soon after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL last January. BYU’s leading rusher last year will have a tough time displacing Allgeier and Katoa, who are listed as co-starters on the depth chart.
“Those guys have been everything we’ve needed them to be,” coach Kalani Sitake said, referring to the versatility that Katoa and Allgeier have displayed for the No. 12-ranked Cougars, who play host to 1-5 Texas State on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
At about the midway point of the season, linebacker-turned-running back Allgeier leads the Cougars with 63 carries for 416 yards, and his 6.6 yards-per-carry average is 14th best in the nation. The former walk-on from Fontana, California, is BYU’s fifth-leading receiver with eight catches for 91 yards.
Is he the next Harvey Unga?
“I don’t know if that is an insult, or a compliment,” Unga said with a laugh. “Tyler is awesome. The fun part is he has a high ceiling right now. I don’t know if he realizes the potential he has, and that’s the fun part for me, helping him to realize that and hopefully reach that potential.”
BYU’s first-year running backs coach said it has been a “big blessing” to have Allgeier back with the running backs — the position he first played as a freshman before being moved to linebacker — and see him flourish there.
“I mean, if I were to compare us, I think he is way ahead of where I was as far as skills and all that stuff goes. Tyler is a stud,” said Unga, the second-leading rusher in school history with 3,455 career yards.
Allgeier’s stats would be even better, but a 46-yard play for a touchdown against Houston on BYU’s first possession of the second half last Friday was erased by a block-in-the-back penalty.
“He has a great combination of speed and power,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. “He is a fit dude that is really strong and powerful, but he has also got the speed to run away from people, too.”
Coincidentally, BYU’s all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Williams, is also from Fontana. Allgeier said he has never spoken individually to Williams, but emulates his style as well as the running of NFL backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
“I’m living my dream,” Allgeier said. “Just getting a scholarship was a dream. So now I might as well go for the bachelor’s degree and aim high, go for the NFL. That’s the new dream right now, just make my family proud.”
Tyler Allgeier wants you to take a few minutes and appreciate the fine work of @byuphoto in this photo recap of the win over Houston. Remember to scroll ⬇️ after clicking the link.https://t.co/q9pp0fALOM pic.twitter.com/n8x7cqQ54B— BYU (@BYU) October 19, 2020
Not as big nor powerful as the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Allgeier, the 6-1, 210-pound Katoa is shiftier and has a knack for finding openings and the end zone.
“Pini is a good football player — that’s no secret,” Unga said. “He is a captain for a reason. He is everything you want. He knows position, the protections. He is easily the most coachable kid I have ever been around. For me, that is a huge blessing and it shows when he goes to play. He does everything right.”
Katoa surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing milestone against Houston and now has 1,007 in his career, with 15 touchdowns. He had 423 yards as a freshman and 358 as a sophomore, but injuries hampered both seasons.
“When he comes into the game it is hard as a defensive coordinator to really hone in on what we are going to do, because the kid can do everything,” Unga said. “It has been fun to see him up his game from last season and previous seasons.”
Although the Cougars only rushed for 78 yards against Houston, a season low, they are still No. 26 in the country in rushing offense, averaging 187.4 per game.
Sitake said Finau, a Kearns High product, will add even more versatility and depth.
“He is tough. He can block. He can do all the things that (Allgeier and Katoa) do. And he has experience, so that helps out as well. He is a big playmaker,” Sitake said. “He just gives us more depth, and that depth has been tested early this year.”
Unga said when Finau returns the search will continue for more backs who can get game-ready, knowing they’ve had to turn to their fourth and fifth backs in previous seasons.
“That’s the nature of the game,” he said. “It is one of those positions where guys can barely even last in the (NFL) for more than two years, so it is no secret that in the past few years we have sadly had that issue. … We will make do with what we got and keep plugging these guys in and see what we can do.”
Unga said Chase Wester, a walk-on from Hoschton, Georgia, and freshman Miles Davis also get some reps in practice and have shown signs of being ready if needed. Linebacker Kavika Fonua can play both ways, if needed.
Redshirt freshmen Javelle Brown and Luc Andrada are listed as RBs on the roster, but Brown has moved over to defensive back and Andrada has been slowed by a foot injury. Unga said he isn’t sure whether Garrett, the freshman from Texas who signed in February but left in August for personal reasons, plans to try and return or not.