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PROVO — It’s been more than two weeks since former BYU running backs coach AJ Steward left to take the same job at the University of Arizona.
It’s hard to blame Steward for the move; the Wildcats represent a step up in resources, in pay structure, in the “Power Five elite” mentality of college football, and — perhaps most importantly — in the ability to move up the ladder of the sport.
Like any coach, Steward wants just that.
But in the two weeks since the departure of the coach that was instrumental in bringing in transfer backs like Ty’Son Williams from South Carolina and Emmanuel Esukpa from Rice, BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake has scarcely muttered a word about a replacement.
No slip-up in a radio interview. No official statement. Not even a passing mention from his Twitter account, which hasn’t been updated since he joined the proud #girldad trend on Jan. 30.
The coaching search has been kept close to the vest — or maybe the search only needs to go so far as the other end of the hallway.
Sitake said he wants to find the best candidate for the job, and he wants that candidate in place “as soon as possible.”
“I think we have a lot of good candidates, and I think it’s important that we work with it and do our best to make sure that spot is filled with the right person with the right fit,” Sitake said after Monday’s first day of spring football. “There are a lot of good quality candidates, and we’ll keep working with that.
“In the meantime,” he added, “Harvey Unga is going to be running the room, and he’ll do that in conjunction with Grimey (offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes) and A-Rod (quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick).”
The new running backs coach — whoever it is — won’t be tasked with building from a bare cupboard.
The Cougars are welcoming back their top three rushers, and four of their top six from a year ago if you count the dual-threat nature of quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall.
They’ll also add Utah transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole, who is finishing classes at the University of Utah even as he is declaring for graduate studies in the BYU biology department. While Henry-Cole won’t be available in spring football, his is a similar situation as Sione Finau — BYU’s leading rusher last year who averaged 6.1 yards per carry for 359 yards and two touchdowns — and Lopini Katoa, who averaged 4.2 yards per carry for 358 yards with four scores.
The duo were banged up last year, and Finau is coming back from offseason surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. In the interim, BYU coaches have moved running back Tyler Allgeier back to the offense after he finished last season at linebacker.
Then they’ll look at Jackson McChesney, Masen Wake, Alec Wyble-Meza and others as they dole out running back reps.
“The culture is a little bit more established,” Grimes said. “We have more leadership. I think the leadership should be further along, and our knowledge base should be further ahead.”
It’s not just culture, either. The running back room is chock full of experience; four rushers with at least eight games of experience, and another in McChesney who may have finished out a strong season before a knee injury in just his third game.
“Really, for the first time since I’ve been here, we’re playing with a majority of upperclassmen at various positions,” Grimes said, referring to the entire offseason. “As you know, we lost a few key players — but most of the guys who are out here have been around for a couple of years.
“It allows us to start at a deeper point than we have it any other time since I’ve been here.”
Which brings us back to Unga.
The former Timpview standout played three seasons for BYU, rushing for more than 1,000 yards all three years and becoming the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher with 3,455 yards in 2009 before being drafted by the Chicago Bears in the NFL supplemental draft.
That record was broken by Jamaal Williams in 2016 — Unga’s first year as a graduate assistant in Provo. He’s worked with the offensive line, wide receivers, and the running backs since 2018, a hand-in-hand partner with Steward most recently.
Unga won’t wait forever for his chance; he's completing his master’s degree at BYU, and he has no veritable coaching experience outside his GA status.
But he has already sent Williams and former BYU center Tejan Koroma to the NFL.
So, does he deserve to be a candidate to fill the Cougars’ latest coaching vacancy? On that, Sitake didn’t even try to play coy, or make a joke.
“Of course,” he said. “Definitely.”