PROVO — It is probably safe to say that Harvey Unga will never forget his first few months as BYU’s new running backs coach.
The former Cougar star has seen a fifth-year graduate transfer from Utah, Devonta’e Henry-Cole, then change course and head to Utah State. He’s seen a preferred walk-on, Alec Wyble-Meza, enter the transfer portal, and a prized freshman recruit, Bruce Garrett, leave the program for personal reasons.
“It’s been interesting,” Unga said. “It’s been tough. These boys, I love them all like they are my own sons. So it is hard when one leaves. It feels like you lose a part of yourself.”
But Unga has also seen the Cougars land a junior college transfer, Hinckley Ropati, way late in the recruiting process and get him eligible for the 2020 season when it first appeared he would enroll in January of 2021.
By all accounts, it’s been a wild five months since Unga was hired on March 19 to succeed A.J. Steward, who took a similar position at Arizona.
“It’s been interesting. It’s been tough. These boys, I love them all like they are my own sons. So it is hard when one leaves. It feels like you lose a part of yourself.” — BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga
“We’ll be OK,” Unga said Tuesday. “We’ll come out better because of it.”
At first glance, the loss of “DHC” at the last minute really hurts, but reports out of camp are that Ropati — who ran for 647 yards and 11 touchdowns last season at Cerritos (California) College — might be better. And the Downey, California, product has four years to play three.
“He’s been a nice addition to the running backs room,” Unga said.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes agreed, calling Ropati “a very talented kid” that BYU coaches have liked for a long time.
“That talent shows up every single day,” Grimes said. “He is a tremendous package of quickness, explosiveness and power.”
Unga said Ropati might not crack the starting lineup — after all, 2019 contributors Lopini Katoa, Tyler Allgeier and Jackson McChesney are all back — but his presence is sorely needed because “you can never have enough depth at the running back position.”
The Cougars know all about that, having limped to the finish line the past three years with fourth- and fifth-string backs when the main guys were injured, such as last year when grad transfer Ty’Son Williams sustained an ACL injury against Washington the fourth game of the season.
Also last year, freshman Sione Finau was emerging as a big-time back, only to sustain a season-ending knee injury in practice in November. Finau underwent surgery in January and is hoping to get clearance to return to action next month.
“We have been monitoring him and giving him little things to work on as far as therapy and everything,” Unga said. “He has been coming along really well. As far as a date when he will be 100 percent, it is still up in the air. But we do anticipate him to definitely be here for the majority of the season.”
Despite getting just 59 carries, Finau led the Cougars in rushing yards last season with 359.
“Sione will definitely make a big impact for us once he is healthy and ready to roll,” said Unga, the second-leading rusher in BYU history with 3,455 yards. Jamaal Williams had 3,901.
Katoa had 85 carries for 358 yards, while Allgeier moved over from linebacker midseason and found himself a home. He had 119 yards on 17 carries, while freshman returned missionary Jackson McChesney had 25 totes for 274 yards.
“I am excited for these guys. I am pleased with the way they have gone through camp,” Unga said. “It has been fun. I love these kids. They have been working their butts off. It is a good room, a good group of guys.”
Yes, but is there a workhorse back among them, a guy that can get 20-25 carries a game and deliver some 100-yard rushing performances, like Unga and Williams used to do?
Katoa is the most likely candidate, if he can avoid injuries that have plagued his previous two seasons in Provo. The former American Fork High star adds versatility with his pass-catching ability. He caught 24 passes for 288 yards and a TD last season.
Allgeier is sturdier at 220 pounds, but not quite as shifty. McChesney might be the fastest of them all.
“That is definitely a goal of all these guys, to be the workhorse back,” Unga said. “They know the level of work and discipline it takes.”
Asked if he prefers the workhorse back approach, or a by-committee approach, head coach Kalani Sitake said whatever best matches his personnel and in this case, “you will probably see a good number of running backs out on the field and different personnel sets that maybe we haven’t done in the past.”
“Without giving away too much of our game planning and schemes and stuff, I think we have backs that can do a lot of different things,” Sitake said. “We are going to utilize all the skill and talent we have. We aren’t just going to play the same 11 guys.”
Referring to the likes of himself, Williams, Fahu Tahi, Curtis Brown, Manase Tonga. and Fui Vakapuna, Unga said it all depends on whether anybody emerges like those former Cougar greats did in the latter part of their careers.
“Staying healthy is a big part of it,” Unga said.
Other backs hoping to break into the two-deep include walk-on Chase Wester of Georgia, former receiver Luc Andrada and former defensive back Javelle Brown.
BYU’s running back production in 2019
Sione Finau — 59 carries, 359 yards, two touchdowns
Lopini Katoa — 85 carries, 358 yards, four touchdowns
Jackson McChesney — 25 carries, 274 yards, two touchdowns
Ty’Son Williams — 49 carries, 264 yards, three touchdowns
Emmanuel Esukpa — 46 carries, 190 yards, two touchdowns
Tyler Allgeier — 17 carries, 119 yards, 0 touchdowns
Masen Wake — 3 carries, 6 yards, 0 touchdowns