Fall Practice Preview: Running Back

Described as the "strength of the team" last year by head coach Bronco Mendenhall, BYU's running backs should only get better in 2006. The biggest question heading into fall practice and the season is how coaches will distribute the carries among their stable of gifted ball carriers.

Old Reliable

Since announcing his arrival at the Division I level as a freshman against Utah State, Curtis Brown (6-1, 205) developed into the top back in the Mountain West Conference. He has 2,183 rushing yards heading into his senior season, which puts him within reach of all-time BYU rushing leader Jamal Willis, who finished his career with 2970 yards.

Brown is a very well rounded back. He is neither a pure speed back nor a pure power back, but he has elements of both running styles in his game. He can sprint around the corner of put his head down and run over hapless defenders.

Brown also has the ability to change direction on the fly. He is not a flashy back, but he squeezes the maximum available yardage out of each play by making efficient use of every motion. He is a very instinctive player who was honed by threes years of experience.

Brown is also an outspoken team leader. Not lacking in confidence, Brown is as genuine as they come. He speaks his mind in every interview. Brown's confidence and positive attitude should benefit a Cougar offense that looks to explode this season.

Replacing Tahi

Last season, Curtis Brown and Fahu Tahi were a devastating one-two punch. Brown is certainly capable of handling the bulk of the reps, but it is always important to have an talented rotation of running backs throughout the year. Fui Vakapuna (6-0, 229) used spring ball to make an emphatic statement about who will split time with Brown.

Vakapuna had a bigger impact on spring practices than any other incoming player in the last five years. There is a tendency to compare current Cougars to their predecessors, but in Vakapuna's case, there is no precedent. It is tough even to compare the player he is today to the player he was before his mission. He is unlike anything ever to line up in the Cougar backfield.

Return on Investiment

Back in the 80s, BYU expected to get two, maybe three, years of on-field production out of their scholarship athletes. On offense in particular, players put in their time as freshmen and sophomores to earn playing time as upperclassmen.

Manase Tonga (5-11, 235) is one of several Cougars who are breaking that mold and yielding early returns on coaches' scholarship investments. Tonga was snatched away from the University of Utah following his mission because Ute coaches could not find a scholarship for him. The Aragon High School superstar saw the majority of reps at fullback as a true freshman.

Tonga not only proved to be a very effective lead blocker out of the backfield, he was also one of the better pass-catchers among BYU's backs. Tonga catches the bal as effortlessly as a fifth year receiver. Look for Tonga to be a well-used safety valve for John Beck this season.

Blocking and catching are not the only things that Tonga does well. He is also a powerful and elusive runner. Throw in a little brother (Matangi Tonga) who was the top defensive end in California before signing with the Cougars, and BYU is getting a better ROI than those who got in on the Google IPO.

Contingency Plans

On every play, at least three running backs who could be starting will be sitting on the bench. Ray Hudson (5-10, 205) showed flashes of something special as a true freshman. He redshirted last year to solidify his knowledge of the offense and is now ready to take the field once more. In spring ball, Hudson showed good speed, power and quickness with the ball. He was best when he made one ankle-breaking move and then took off downfield. Opposing defenses will not be able to rest when Hudson comes in for Vakapuna and Brown.

Wayne Latu (6-0, 222) joins Hudson as a backup who could easily be a starter. Latu exploded in the UNLV game last season when he rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown in a single quarter. As an indication of how deep the Cougars are at running back, coaches may ask Latu to redshirt this season. Latu, Hudson, Tonga and Vakapuna are all sophomores, so a redshirt for Latu would allow coaches to avoid losing all four backs at once.

Joe Semanoff (5-10, 215) certainly proved capable a season ago when he filled in for Tahi in the critical game against New Mexico. Semanoff scored a touchdown in the victory that changed the Cougars season. Harvey Unga (6-2, 225) has been working out with the team all summer and could make an impact as a true freshman this fall. Unga appeared to be growing right out of the running back position, but he has slimmed down and should be able to play at either spot in the Cougar backfield.

Bottom Line

It is hard to imagine a deeper or more talented group of Cougar running backs than those BYU has this year. Perhaps only a combination of 1996, with Brian McKenzie and Ronney Jenkins, and 2001, with Luke Staley and Brian McDonald, would compare. The unit should prove to be the strength of the offense once again. Together with BYU's passing attack, the running game should overwhelm opposing defenses.

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