PROVO — There was a lot to like about BYU’s running back group ahead of the fall 2020 season.
Lopini Katoa was coming off his most productive season in a Cougar uniform in 2019, when the American Fork product ran for 358 yards and four touchdowns while adding another 288 receiving yards and a score.
Big expectations were expected from the growth of Tyler Allgeier, the dual linebacker-running back from Fontana, California who showed spurts of excitement a year ago and has returned to the offensive backfield full-time, and Jackson McChesney, the Lone Peak product who piled up 228 yards and two touchdowns against UMass before injuries ended his redshirting freshman season.
Add in Sione Finau, who underwent offseason knee surgery, and Bruce Garrett, the speedy running back who ran for 3,800 yards in two seasons at Pleasant Grove High in Texarkana, Texas.
But there’s little doubt who the experienced back of the group was set to be: Utah graduate transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound who ran for 468 yards and four touchdowns on 90 touches in three seasons with the Utes.
The only problem? Henry-Cole double-transferred, and will now enroll at Utah State for his final season of eligibility.
Is that a concern for head coach Kalani Sitake?
“We’re going to be fine,” Sitake said. “We’re going to play with the guys that are here. He was here during our PRPs (player-run practices), he was here during our workouts and stuff.
“He knows how good we are at our running back corps. I think we’re going to be fine.”
The leader of Sitake’s optimism is Katoa, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound incoming junior who averaged 4.85 yards per carry for 781 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons of eligibility who seemed outwardly undeterred about Henry-Cole’s departure when he met with the media Friday at the close of the first week of training camp.
“People can come and go,” Katoa said. “When they come, we’ll help them out; when they leave, we’re all still preparing. I really don’t feel like we missed a beat.”
The optimism for the 2020 season took a jump Thursday when BYU announced a new opening day — Labor Day, as it were — and a new opponent — Navy, the Cougars’ first game against the Midshipmen since 1989. That fervor spread to Friday's practice as the Cougars put the final touches on the first week of training camp well ahead of any team in the state thanks to their Sept. 7 kickoff.
And while the prospects of a college football season are far from set — BYU isn’t alone in that regard — the news makes talking about football matters, like who does BYU’s depth at running back, feel a bit more natural.
With that optimism comes a chance to ask more questions related to actual football. And perhaps one of the bigger questions at BYU is the depth of running back in Henry-Cole’s absence.
But Sitake praised the offseason workouts from Katoa, and also added that speedy defensive back Javelle Brown, a 6-foot-1, 187-pound redshirt freshman, and wide receiver Luc Andrada, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound wideout who was a state champion in Colorado, have been working out with the running backs in the opening days of training camp, as well.
Andrada, in particular, poses a unique option for BYU, especially as a chance-of-pace running back. Once a dual-threat quarterback at Pueblo East High School in Colorado, Andrada threw for 4,056 yards and 49 touchdowns as a senior. He also won state titles in the 100- and 200-meter dash with times of 10.51 seconds and 21.1 seconds as a senior, respectively.
A dual-track athlete at BYU, Andrada reportedly ran a 4.59 40-yard dash in high school, according to a 247 Sports combine, and his father told KSL.com that he ran as fast as a 4.38 40 during a workout at the Air Force Academy.
“He’s really fast,” Sitake said. “We’re really excited for that group.”
There seems to be little doubt, though: the running back room starts with Katoa. He’s the most experienced rusher on the 2020 football team, and with Finau still nursing a return to play from his knee injury, Katoa is the most productive, as well.
“Lopini is the furthest ahead in his knowledge of the game, leadership and maturity,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who praised Katoa’s offseason preparation. “I really like where he’s at, and I think he’s taken a step forward from where he’s been in the past.”
The Cougars also added Cerritos College transfer Hinckley Ropati. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound sophomore ran for 647 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman with the Falcons, and was committed to transferring to Provo after his upcoming sophomore season.
But when the California junior college system announced it was postponing the football season until the spring, Ropati began looking at a full-time transfer to Provo. BYU brought him in as a member of the 2020 recruiting class Thursday evening.
Grimes knew Ropati would eventually make it to BYU; he just didn’t know it would be this soon. Now that he’s on campus and in the locker room, the running back from Downey, California has already made a strong impression on his new teammates.
“He seems like a great kid,” Katoa said. “I spent a day with him so far, and he seems awesome. He’s ready to work, learning all that he can, and he’s picking up the offense fast. I think he’s going to be a really good addition to our room.”
Sure, Henry-Cole’s departure for Logan is a hit to BYU’s depth at running back. But it wasn’t enough of a hit to cause coaches to be concerned enough to pull other players into the running backs room, at least not on a long-term basis.
Jackson Kaufusi was one of those spring moves. But the former Brighton High standout has moved back to linebacker, his brother Isaiah told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. And that group has found a new depth — even so much that sixth-year senior Zayne Anderson has been plugged in at safety, adding a former state champion sprinter at Stansbury High to the defensive backfield.
Between the Kaufusi brothers, 2019 breakout player Payton Wilgar, former Bountiful standout Max Tooley, Navy transfer Pepe Tanuvasa and Keenan Ellis, the Cougars feel like they’ve got a fair amount of depth at linebacker, too.
“We’re moving guys around,” Isaiah Kaufusi said. “I’m sure it will change; it’s how football has been for the past four years for me.
“I’m sure depth charts and positions will change. But it’s really just to get the best XI on the field.”
Wilgar, too, is confident in his group’s depth, even as he saw teammates swirl around him to different positions in the spring while he remained the steady force at inside linebacker.
“We’ve got more experience. A lot of the young guys last year got more experience,” Wilgar said.
“We’re pretty deep, and I believe anyone of our linebackers could start and play in any situation. I’m excited for that.”
As the running backs room has taught, you can never have too much depth.