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Dick Harmon: Fifth-year senior transfer backs may prove an interesting development as BYU camp opens

Emmanuel Esukpa runs a drill as BYU opens football practice at the indoor facility in Provo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Ty'Son Williams runs a drill as BYU opens football practice at the indoor facility in Provo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. Scott G Winterton

PROVO — Did BYU jump-start its running back corps? If so, it should be one of the more interesting stories of camp as head coach Kalani Sitake kicked off fall football camp on Wednesday.

Six months ago, there was a myriad of problems with this group as the 2018 season concluded. The wounded and MIA have slowly limped back from the training room. Back in December, there was the idea of snagging a fifth-year transfer to inject into the mix, but it seemed a pipe dream. Some said that kind of recruit would be too great a hurdle with the school's stingy admissions policies.

On Wednesday, the first day coaches got to tinker around, things looked big time different from where they were in December. Or even long after signing day in February 2019.

You see, since the end of the season, former QB Beau Hoge decided to take his MBA degree and move on, and Riley Burt went through the transfer portal to Utah State.

This senior transfer plan all of a sudden became a critical piece.

Sitake signed not one but two senior transfers. Rice University's Emmanuel Esukpa was first to become official in March. The other, Ty'Son Williams with SEC experience from South Carolina, took until May, five months after the season ended.

That Sitake pulled this off should signal progress with the admissions office wherein his predecessor Bronco Mendenhall viewed such challenges as one of several hurdles that made independence "not sustainable."

This could be a big deal if Williams and Esukpa pan out.

"It was just a total group effort," said running back coach AJ Steward. "I mean from on-campus to Trevor Wilson (athletics academic advisor). He helped us out just being the liaison between on-campus and us coaches. He worked hard, as did our entire offensive staff led by coach (Jeff) Grimes and Kalani Sitake.

"It was truly just everybody doing whatever we could to get our team in the best situation to be successful this year. And so I was, I'm grateful as a running back coach that we were able to make it work and we put ourselves in a pretty good position as far as depth and having acquired some more talent to help us into this season."

Just how did coordinator Jeff Grimes piece things together after he transitioned from the jet sweep-oriented attack he opened the 2018 season with?

Case in point: The Utah-BYU game.

In November at rival Utah, senior Squally Canada couldn't play. Neither could freshman Lopini Katoa. Kavika Fonua and Hoge were hurt and rookie Sione Fonua wasn't ready. Jet sweep specialist Aleva Hifo, who had a circus day in an upset of Wisconsin, was grounded, playing wideout with a soon-to-be-operated-on injured shoulder.

Steward called upon Matt Hadley, a guy who had his kneecap torn from its moorings in the offseason, to start against Utah in Rice Eccles Stadium.

Hadley was converted safety/linebacker. He scored on a 1-yard scamper to put the Cougars up 20-0 on the Utes. He had two touchdowns that night before leaving the game with an injury in the second half. He had gained 63 yards on 21 carries. None of five USC runners came close to doing that in Utah's 41-28 win over the Trojans. Washington's Myles Gaskin barely had more (23 for 71 yards) in the Husky's Pac-12 championship win over the Utes.

That was Grimes' Band-Aid run attack and for just over a half, it worked.

"Grimes made that run game work, he's at the center of it all. And I'd take a room full of Hadleys every year and I tell him that every time I see him," said Steward.

"I do think this team is deep at running back," said former all-time leading rusher Jamal Willis, a private workout coach who attended Wednesday's drills. "This may be as deep as I can ever remember BYU being at running back."

This week, Katoa is back. He looks explosive and elusive. Health is a wonderful thing. A year ago Katoa rushed for 423 yards and eight touchdowns with a 5.6 yards-per-carry average. Pro Football Focus listed him as the third most productive returning FBS back against a stacked box of eight or more defenders with his 84.0 yard average per game.

Pushing him are the two seniors Esukpa (5-11, 225) and Williams (6-0, 220), one-semester players many believed last winter may not ever join the team. Williams, a former four-star recruit, had looks from many SEC programs out of high school, including Florida State and other Power Five programs. He has quality carries against SEC defenses.

Ty'Son Williams runs a drill as BYU opens football practice at the indoor facility in Provo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

Scott G Winterton

Ty'Son Williams runs a drill as BYU opens football practice at the indoor facility in Provo on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

Esukpa and Williams pass the eye test. Tweeting photos of themselves after hiking to the "Y," they have a unique perspective of what they can bring to Steward, the Cougars and Provo. Film shows a duo that can run strong with decent speed and can catch out of the backfield.

"They've been here all summer going to school and working out. They have done a good job," said Steward.

Bless the old 24-year old senior retread, Hadley. He gave everything he had and in November he was about all the Cougars had.

Now, as July 2019 comes to an end, Steward and Grimes have far more choices and more bodies to exchange and evaluate than a year ago. "I learned a lesson last year," said Steward. "You can never have enough backs."

Or enough Hadleys.

That he did something about it could prove significant for 2019.