PROVO — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake went into the offseason looking to sign a couple of running backs to replace departing graduate transfers Ty’Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa and add depth to a position group that always seems to get depleted by injuries.
He found a few, landing Bruce Garrett of Texarkana, Texas, from the high school ranks and Devonta’e Henry-Cole from the University of Utah.
But now he’s looking for a new running backs coach.
AJ Steward left on Valentine’s Day for a similar role at the University of Arizona, leaving sizable shoes to fill on BYU’s staff because in two years he emerged as one of the program’s top recruiters and developers of talent.
Insiders say Sitake is trying to move quickly to replace Steward, with spring ball set to begin on March 2, but nothing happens quickly at BYU when it comes to coaching hirings, as many Cougar fans are well aware.
Almost immediately after Steward’s announcement that he was joining Kevin Sumlin’s staff in Tucson, speculation ramped up regarding his replacement. The most obvious candidate is former BYU star Harvey Unga, who has been an offensive graduate assistant on the staff the past four years, working with the offensive line in 2016, the wide receivers in 2017 and the running backs since 2018.
Unga knows the ins and outs of BYU as a Provo native, a player and a coach. He also has NFL experience, is popular among the current players, and received Steward’s endorsement as a person totally capable of stepping in seamlessly.
Another possibility is Jimmy Beal, who was recently hired as the running backs coach at Montana State after spending the 2019 season at South Dakota State and the nine seasons prior to that at Northern Arizona. A former MSU running back and defensive back, Beal counts several friends on BYU’s current staff, most notably cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford.
Former University of Utah and NFL running back Quinton Ganther — Weber State’s RBs coach the past six years — was in the mix for the job two years ago when Sitake replaced Reno Mahe with Steward, and might be interested in reuniting with former WSU coaches Steve Clark (tight ends) and Fesi Sitake (receivers), who have made the jump from Ogden to Provo.
Whichever candidate gets the job will inherit some talent, especially in the form of Henry-Cole, known as “DHC” at RB-rich Utah while appearing in 25 games during three seasons. Henry-Cole redshirted in 2018 due to an arm injury and had 34 carries for 188 yards and two touchdowns for the Utes last season before deciding to enter the transfer portal.
The native of Boca Raton, Florida (St. Thomas Aquinas High School) joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the faith that owns and operates BYU — in 2018. BYU passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick helped recruit DHC to Utah in 2015 and called him as soon as he heard he was looking to transfer.
“I always liked him; He is a really well-liked member of the team up there (at Utah). He is a great kid, great character, really great player. Has a lot of speed. He will be a great fit here,” Roderick said. “That’s our biggest challenge here is finding speed and guys that can break the game open, and he is one of those guys that can do that.”
BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes on the offensive additions, Kalani Sitake on whether there’s room for more signees from transfer portal. pic.twitter.com/iiqWc7kTrI— Jay Drew (@drewjay) February 5, 2020
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said BYU’s successful use of grad-transfers Williams and Esukpa, until they were injured, wasn’t really a factor for DHC.
“He was comfortable here right away,” Grimes said. Last year’s depth chart “just shows we are willing to bring somebody in and if that guy is the best player we will give him the opportunity right from the jump.”
For rising junior running back Lopini Katoa, the competition is nothing new. He rushed for 358 yards on 85 carries last season, appearing in 12 games despite several nagging injuries.
Rising sophomore Sione Finau finished as BYU’s leading rusher in 2019 (59 carries, 359 yards), despite sustaining a season-ending knee injury in practice prior to the UMass game. Finau’s surgery was delayed to January, so his availability for the Sept. 3 opener at Utah is in question.
Sophomores Tyler Allgeier (17 carries, 119 yards) and Jackson McChesney (25 carries, 274 yards) could also be in the mix for more carries in 2020, although Allgeier could be moved back to linebacker if he is more needed there.
Alec Wyble-Meza, a walk-on from Scottsdale (Arizona) Community College, got three carries last year and could move up the depth chart. Garrett, the 5-11, 190-pounder from Texas, had 243 carries for 1,796 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior in 2019 and ran for 254 yards in a state championship game.
BYU’s running backs in 2020
• Devonta’e Henry-Cole, Sr., 5-9, 197
• Lopini Katoa, Jr., 6-1, 210
• Tyler Allgeier, Soph., 5-11, 220
• Sione Finau, Soph., 5-11, 185
• Jackson McChesney, Soph., 6-0, 205
• Alex Wyble-Meza, Jr., 5-10, 206
• Bruce Garrett, Fr., 5-11, 190