Recent comments by head coach Bronco Mendenhall indicate that assumed starting running back Fui Vakapuna (6-1, 250 Jr.) has a way to go until he's able to assume the mantle as BYU's primary ball-carrier. Due primarily to injury issues, Vakapuna has risen to around 250 pounds and needs to shed a lot of that weight until he's able to even contribute.
We'll be monitoring Vakapuna's progress throughout fall practices, and when he's ready to practice we'll be there to report on how he's looking. We'll be looking to see if Vakapuna can regain the form he had during the first half of last season.
Every preseason prognostication includes Vakapuna playing a huge role and subsequently being a huge benefit to this year's offense. Vakapuna's shape and overall well-being is certainly one of the top stories during this fall practice session, which starts in just over a week.
Two-year starter Manase Tonga (6-0, 234 Jr.) will be benched for the first game against Arizona and will miss all of August practices due to a suspension handed down by Mendenhall. Replacing a two-year starter for even one game isn't an easy task and the process will begin in earnest during preseason practices.
Joe Semanoff (5-11, 220 Sr.) has answered the bell before for a suspended running back and filled in admirably. Semanoff filled in very effectively for Fahu Tahi in a critical game against New Mexico back in 2005, helping the Cougars to that important victory. Semanoff is the type of backup good teams rely on for situations just like the current FB situation heading into the Arizona game.
The only problem arising with Semanoff stepping in for Tonga is that Semanoff may not be ready for full-contact in time for the game. Semanoff sat out the spring while recovering from a shoulder injury, and is still recovering from that same injury as fall practices are set to begin.
Another option is with Harvey Unga (6-0, 220 Fr.), who was already assumed to be the primary rotating back with Vakapuna this coming season. Now it appears that Unga may be working to replace both backs in time for the Arizona game.
Unga has injuries of his own that he's recovering from, having sat out full-contact drills this past spring. It does appear that Unga will be ready and raring to go from the first day of fall camp, which is becoming a rarity for BYU running backs these days.
Wayne Latu (6-0, 222 So.) has seen production on the field in the past, but came out of spring practices looking like the third option at tailback at best. Latu had a decent spring and could be looked at for a bigger role against Arizona due to the issues we already went over.
The other option lies in a true freshman. J.J. DiLuigi (5-9, 180 Fr.) comes to Provo with high expectations and may be looked on to contribute right away, instead of being slowly worked into the playing rotation like most true freshmen.
DiLuigi has been working his way back from a broken foot, but claims to be fully recovered from the injury. Will DiLuigi live up to the hype and will he be ready to go come the Arizona game in a primary offensive role? We'll be keeping a very close eye on DiLuigi this fall.
A lot to Sort Out
Indeed, the running back position has a lot to sort out as many assumed givens have been taken away or are in question leading up to the Arizona game. A lot has to be sorted out in regards to who will be taking the reps in the Cougar backfield against Arizona and for the rest of the season.
While many of these running backs have proven to be effective runners and receivers out of the backfield when the need has arisen, they need to prove to be effective in picking up blitzes and in lead-blocking. We'll be watching those two aspects as well throughout the fall and who is best able to achieve the blocking consistency of Manase Tonga and perhaps the running effectiveness of Fui Vakapuna.
The bottom line is that the parts are certainly there for a very effective backfield for 2007. Whether or not these parts will be ready to go is what is in question. Breaking in a new quarterback is much easier when said quarterback has the benefit of an experienced backfield to pick up on-coming blitzers and mount an effective running attack to take pressure off of him. Whether Max Hall will have that against Arizona is in question at this point.