PROVO, Utah — Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams finished his collegiate career as the all-time leading rusher in BYU history and now the Cougars must find a way to replace his 1,375 yards from 2016.
Junior Squally Canada believes he’s the man for the job, but the coaching staff seems to be leaning toward a running back-by-committee approach as the Cougars prepare to start the season Saturday against Portland State.
“I personally feel if you gave one person a shot, you never know who’s going to have a breakout season,” Canada said. “That’s why I’ve been busting my tail during the offseason to say, ‘I want to be that guy.’ That’s no disrespect to the other running backs. But at the same time it is a competition. … So I’ve been preparing myself to be that (workhorse). Not so much fill in for Jamaal’s shoes, but be Squally Canada.”
The coaching staff doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about settling on one back as much as being successful with different packages. Canada, junior Kavika Fonua and sophomore Riley Burt are more traditional between-the-tackles runners. KJ Hall, Trey Dye and Austin Kafentzis are lighter, work-in-space backs while the 6-foot-1, 255-pound freshman Ula Tolutau brings a load.
Running backs coach Reno Mahe said there’s so much different from 2016 it’s unfair to make a direct comparison to what Williams accomplished. He just wants to surpass the overall 2,615 rushing yards that team posted last season — and win.
Offensive coordinator Ty Detmer doesn’t have specific numbers goals and has no plans to adjust his calls without Williams’ all-around skill set.
“I don’t see it being a lot different,” Detmer said. “That’s our scheme. That’s kind of what we do. There will be some wrinkles in there, some things we add for certain guys. But overall, we’re have a system that we feel pretty good about regardless of who’s back there. We’ve got guys that can play, they may not be Jamaal Williams, but they can play.”
Many coaches prefer to have one back rise to the top and separate from the pack, but the BYU staff has repeatedly said that’s not a priority. One of the advantages to a primary runner, though, is allowing him to get in a groove over the course of the game. A constant shuffle can make it difficult to get a feel for the game.
Canada said that was an issue for him in spot duty in 2016, when he ran for 315 yards with two touchdowns and had two starts.
“You’re rotating like this, it puts a lot more added pressure on us to where, ‘I’ve got to make this rep count,’” Canada said. “‘I’ve got maximize this rep because I don’t know what the rotation is.’ It’s good, but I feel like it’s bad at the same time because what if this guy never gets into his groove because he’s touching the ball here and there?”
Canada doesn’t want to be mistaken for being cocky or selfish. The 5-11, 205-pounder praised the other backs and said they all deserve the chance to show they’re more than one-trick ponies. The situation is also difficult for coaches when one or two players haven’t proven to be head and shoulders above the rest of the pack during camp.
“We’re really situational,” coach Kalani Sitake said. “We’ll have to use those guys in different spots. I just want to win games.”
Replacing an all-time talent is never easy and the Cougars are expected to focus a little more on the passing game this season as pocket-passer Tanner Mangum replaces the athletic Taysom Hill at quarterback. Check-downs are being emphasized as the running backs should be more involved in the passing game.
Still, how the running game will shake out remains a mystery until BYU starts facing people in different jerseys.
“Jamaal did everything,” Hall said. “The aspect of running back by committee, the way we’re going to be able to keep people off balance is if everybody can do everything. You can’t replace Jamaal. … We’re just going to use our abilities individually and kind of put it together in a big running back casserole and we’ll see what comes out.”
Who: Portland State vs. BYU
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Provo, Utah
Line: No line