Fall practice preview: offensive backfield

Much like the offensive line in front of it, there isn't a lot to be sorted out in the Cougar offensive backfield entering the fall practice session. Everyone's back, which bodes well for the offense. There are a few things that will be worth noting during fall, however.

After the mess that developed at quarterback last August, things couldn't be much more cut-and-dried than they are entering this fall camp session. Jake Heaps is the starter, and will headline what looks to be a very strong and deep offensive backfield.


Heaps struggled through the first half of last season, but thrived during the final half after he was named the clear starter. Growing pains are to be expected of any true freshman, and Heaps should be that much stronger this year after having gone through those pains.

There won't be any major fiddling with the offense this time around. The staff knows who their quarterback is and have spent the entire offseason formatting the offense around his strengths.

Coaches often state that the biggest improvement a player makes is from his first year to the next, and if that is the case with Heaps, then the sky is the limit.

"Jake is in a good spot for sure," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "He has most of his offense back, and with that year under him, he could do very, very well. And with him doing well, the rest of our offense will do well."

Backing up Heaps will be Riley Nelson. Coaches didn't tinker with the offense to fit around his strengths this spring, but Nelson rolled with it and did relatively well considering the circumstances.

Nelson has been the subject of some unfair criticism from fans because he's not Jake Heaps. What he is, however, is a valuable backup option that will provide some good insurance along with some situational work this coming season.

The two backups beyond Nelson will again be James Lark and Jason Munns. Both quarterbacks didn't present much of a challenge to Nelson for the second-string spot this past spring, but we'll see soon enough what strides they can make this fall.

The lone new face will be Alex Kuresa, who will be joining the team as a true freshman. A lot of fans still don't recognize Kuresa as a legitimate quarterback prospect, but his attempt to prove the doubters wrong begins August 6, and we'll be sure to keep on eye on him throughout the fall.

Running Back

J.J. Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya both return for their senior season. Neither running back will blow you away with anything that they do, but both are as reliable as they come as backfield options.

Di Luigi can do a bit of everything, while Kariya provides a dogged north-and-south running approach that serves him well. Both will again prove as reliable as ever this coming season.

"It's great having two guys like J.J. and Bryan in our backfield," said running back coach Joe DuPaix. "They're both as dependable as they come, and that is such an important thing to have - two guys, at least two guys that you can depend on getting it done."

The up-and-comer of the running backs is sophomore Joshua Quezada, who seemed primed to take over the primary running duties toward the end of last season. After a productive spring practice session, he'll vie for the primary running duties.

Freshman Drew Phillips has carried a lot of hype with him since showing up on campus. Unfortunately, the spring and fall practice sessions have not been kind to him due to injuries and other issues that have held him out and haven't allowed him to showcase his talents.

Hopefully this fall practice session will see Phillips show forth that great speed of his, as he could bring a very unique aspect to the running back corps or could find a niche for himself in the slot and/or in kick and punt returns.

Two other options include junior David Foote and sophomore Ryan Folsom, who have each logged some very good reps during practice sessions. Adam Hine will return from his mission just in time for fall practices, but isn't looked at as a possible contributor by the coaching staff considering his timetable.

"It's a very deep and potentially very good group," said DuPaix. "We have a lot of options, and good options. Every day during spring, it seemed as if a different guy would step up, and I'd like to see that continue this fall and into the season."


Due to the offense going to a pro-style system, a fullback should be used much more frequently. Although the fullback spot doesn't look to be quite as experienced as the group at running back, there are some good options.

Junior Zed Mendenhall leads this group, as he's coming off a season which saw him take the majority of reps at fullback. Mendenhall presents a punishing presence to lead the running backs through the line, as he proved last season.

Mendenhall will be pushed primarily by sophomores Michael Alisa and Iona Pritchard. Alisa is coming off a very good spring practice session after returning home from his mission service.

Pritchard, meanwhile, returned home from his mission this past May and will look to reprise his very good production as a true freshman before his mission.

Overall, the offensive backfield looks to be deep and talented with some intriguing options that we'll be keeping an eye on throughout the August practice sessions.

"I like our guys," said Doman. "You have Jake, who could be set for a very good season, a great season if he just keeps his focus, and the running backs, they're a group you don't have to worry much about with all their talent and with Coach DuPaix, who is doing a great job with them. I'm excited about this group, real excited."

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