It remains to be seen whether BYU will return to the running back-by-committee approach it used before Tyler Allgeier and Chris Brooks arrived the past two or three years, or settle on highly touted UNLV transfer Aidan Robbins for the bulk of the carries in 2023.
What is a certainty, according to fourth-year running backs coach Harvey Unga, is that the group will be extremely versatile in BYU’s first season in the Big 12.
“For someone as big as he is, I didn’t think he would be as fluid as he is. Just watching him run, I am amazed.” — BYU RBs coach Harvey Unga on Aidan Robbins
“That has been the fun thing about these guys this year,” Unga said last week. “We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things.”
Despite some midseason hamstring issues, Cal transfer Brooks, who is now preparing for the NFL draft, led the Cougars in carries (130), rushing yards (837) and rushing touchdowns (six) last season. He picked up 6.3 yards per tote, and may have been a bit underutilized.
BYU’s running back situation now is a lot like last year at this time, when Brooks was brought in to fill the shoes of Allgeier, one of the Cougars’ all-time greats. Allgeier, now with the Atlanta Falcons, was the clear workhorse back in 2021, rushing 276 times for 1,606 yards and 23 TDs.
Will Robbins — who played sparingly at Louisville before transferring to UNLV before the 2022 season — grab the reins and become the go-to guy in Aaron Roderick’s offense, or will Unga use a combination of Robbins, returning ballcarriers Hinckley Ropati and Miles Davis and quarterback-turned-RB Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters?
It is way too early to make that call, Unga told the Deseret News.
“We’ve got a long way to go before (the opener),” he said. “But so far I really like what I see.”
“I expect a lot of him, and I know he does, too,” Unga said of the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder from Canutillo High. “But at the same time, I have a good group of guys here already that I think will help him, whether he comes in and contributes right away or not. I feel really good about the room.
“I love the guys I have,” Unga continued. “I love the culture we have in there, and the depth, knock on wood. It is fun to see. There are some good players here.”
What Unga hasn’t seen is Robbins getting reps during the 11-on-11 portions of spring camp. He had surgery on his right hand last winter and hasn’t been cleared for full contact yet. He has done more than expected, though, Unga said.
“I wasn’t expecting him to do anything, to be honest,” Unga said. “But he has been doing some (individual) things here and there, obviously noncontact stuff. … You can see glimpses of what is to come. Just to have him out there and his presence out there, it is cool.”
Unga said Robbins has been heavily involved from the sidelines during the live sessions, and probably will be Friday when the Cougars have their annual spring scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium, weather permitting.
“He is always right by me, and chirping on certain plays and certain things,” Unga said. “It is cool to see, because a lot of the things I am thinking, I will hear him say out loud.”
As far as Robbins’ physical attributes, the Cougars knew what they were getting after watching the 6-3, 230-pounder with two years of eligibility remaining run last year for UNLV. Robbins led the Rebels in rushing with 209 carries for 1,011 yards.
“For someone as big as he is, I didn’t think he would be as fluid as he is. Just watching him run, I am amazed. He runs fluidly, he’s got a good feel for the game,” Unga said. “That was the one thing I was actually kind of surprised about, because you see a guy that big, you don’t expect him to be as nimble and agile as he is.
“It is pretty cool to see. He is surprising a couple of guys on our staff, just watching him run and stuff,” Unga continued.
Roderick said Robbins has used his recovery time well.
“He knows the offense,” Roderick said. “He can’t wait to be cleared to play, and I can’t wait to watch him.”
Welcoming the new guy
Any time programs bring a grad transfer into a position group, they run the risk of disrupting chemistry and/or angering existing players who might be displaced or see their playing time diminished. But Unga said Davis, Ropati and Maiava-Peters have welcomed the new guy with open arms.
Other running backs in the room are senior Morgan Pyper, redshirt sophomore Enoch Nawahine and freshmen Helu Nukuluve and Chase Hopkins, a walk-on. Jackson McChesney medically retired and another back who got seven carries last year, Mason Fakahua, has moved to the hybrid fullback/tight end position that BYU calls an H-back or U-back.
“I challenge them,” Unga said. “I am like, ‘Hey, either you guys step up and make Aidan a better running back, or, you can fold and let him take over and you guys are going to be stagnant, where you are at. … They are going to make him earn it and then have been doing a great job.”
Ropati, who emerged late last season and finished with 36 carries for 189 yards and a touchdown, said the more the merrier and stressed that all the running backs just want the program to get better and win football games.
“Playing this position, you gotta understand that it is physical and violent and guys get hurt,” Ropati said. “You have seen it here before. Guys will go down all the time. It is a physical position. So bringing Aidan in adds that depth, and adds a different dynamic to the room.
“Honestly, I was excited. I saw him play. I watched his film to see what kind of cat we are bringing in. And I like the way this kid plays. He plays physical,” Ropati continued. “He can break tackles. His experience as well only elevates the competition in the room, which makes everybody better. So yeah, I love it.”
What was Ropati’s first impression of Robbins?
“He is massive,” Ropati said. “I am like, ‘Oh man, he is taller than Chris Brooks.’ He is a big kid. So we were all definitely impressed, for sure.”
What Kalani Sitake wants to see
Throughout his seven years in Provo, head coach Kalani Sitake has avoided expressing a preference on running backs and their usage, even when Jamaal Williams was running wild in 2016 and there were some lean years between his time and Allgeier’s emergence. From 2017 to 2019 it was by-committee with the likes of Squally Canada, Katoa, Sione Finau, Ty’Son Williams and McChesney sharing carries.
“I feel really good with the group, because we know what Folau (Ropati) can do,” Sitake said after last Saturday’s combination practice/scrimmage in the indoor practice facility. “Really like the addition of Aidan to the group as well.
“They are coming along. … Folau is doing some really good things. We gotta get Miles more reps.”
Maiava-Peters sustained a minor right knee injury a few weeks ago and is being held out for the remainder of spring camp, an injury that has slowed his progress in learning his new position, Sitake said.
“Once we get everybody healthy and going I think we are really going to like that group,” Sitake said. “It is just (about) who is going to get the bulk of the reps? Who are going to be the top two, top three guys? That is what we are working toward.”
Added Roderick: “Miles and Hinckley are much improved from a year ago, and then Sol-Jay is what he showed in the bowl game. He is a Swiss Army knife.”
Roderick said Maiava-Peters, offensive MVP of the New Mexico Bowl as a quarterback, has “handled it like a pro” and was flourishing before he got hurt.
“I mean, of course he came here to play quarterback. He would love to be the starting quarterback. I told him I would love to be the starting shortstop for the White Sox,” Roderick said. “But I am not. So, move on. This is what you can do for our team. Do you want to do it? And he said OK, I will do it. And he embraced it. …
“If he keeps progressing, you are going to see him doing fun things, yup.”
Does BYU need another experienced RB?
It has been well-documented that the Cougars could use another receiver or two out of the transfer portal, and perhaps another linebacker. What about another running back?
While saying he would be content to go into BYU’s first season in the Big 12 with what he currently has in the RBs room, Unga acknowledged that having another one wouldn’t hurt.
“I am never going to complain about the depth. If I can bring in a guy that is going to elevate the room, I am always going to do that. I have told the boys that. They know it,” he said. “All the coaches feel the same way. If we can find someone that can elevate the team, and the room and everything, we will go after them.
“But for now, I feel good about the room. I feel good where we are at. If something does come up, great. I would love to bring in someone else and see what he can do to contribute.
“But if not, I am not too worried about it. We will be OK.”
Because this current group has a lot of versatility — which may be more important than anything else.