BYU’s Q&A in the Backfield
BYU has operated with a running back by committee approach the past two seasons.
The key committee members during that stretch have moved on though, leaving two players to carry the load in the Cougar backfield in 2012.
J.J. Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya left the program having combined for nearly 4,000 total yards and 37 touchdowns.
Di Luigi saw his minutes and production diminish during his senior season, but he left BYU having produced 2,787 yards rushing and receiving and scored 19 touchdowns in the process.
He was a threat both running and receiving throughout his career, and was the offensive star of the team during his junior season in 2010 when the Cougars rallied from a 1-4 start to finish the year at 7-6, including a 52-24 victory over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
Kariya was a leader and hard-nosed runner that BYU turned to when the going got tough. He was a player that BYU could count on in third and short situations or crack the endzone when BYU was near the goal line. He was also a solid blocker and a capable receiver out of the backfield. His selfless, blue collar style made him the quintessential Bronco Mendenhall type of player and respected by everyone connected to the program.
As the Cougars labor through their summer workouts, the weight of responsibility in the backfield are coming to rest on the shoulders of Josh “Juice” Quezada (5-11, 215 Jr.) and Michael Alisa (6-1, 213 Jr.). They’re the Q&A in the BYU backfield this year. If you’ve got questions about the BYU running game in 2012, they’ve got the answers. At least offensive coordinator Brandon Doman certainly hopes so.
Quezada struggled through a disappointing and difficult sophomore year in 2011. He began the season suffering with ankle injuries that limited his mobility and effectiveness. He was supposed to build on a true freshman season that saw him average 5.1 yards per carry and rush for 505 yards, including going over the 100-yard mark in two of BYU’s final three games. Instead, he found himself mostly watching from the sidelines as converted linebacker Michael Alisa worked his way into a starting role.
Juice finished the year with just 298 yards on the ground and a single touchdown to his credit, while averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Late in the season, Josh’s disappointment turned into tragedy as his older brother Joseph was killed in a hit-and-run auto accident in his home town of La Habra, California. When Josh left the team to be with his family, some wondered, given all of his trials in 2011, if he would return to Provo.
But return he did, appearing to also return to his pre-2011 form during spring practices this past March. He participated in every session of spring camp, showing no signs of last season’s nagging injuries. In fact, he appeared quicker, leaner and more athletic than ever.
He also showed a new level of focus, having dedicated his 2012 season to his brother and his family. That focus was demonstrated by his refusal to speak to the media throughout the spring. Every indication at this point is that Quezada is prepared to have the kind of breakout season that he and BYU fans expected him to have last year.
The “A” in the running back Q&A equation in 2012 is Alisa. Michael returned home from a mission in 2011 and switched positions, changing from linebacker to running back and then waiting patiently for his opportunity. That chance came in the sixth game of the season against San Jose State when Doman rewarded him for his effort and progress by giving him the nod at running back.
Alisa didn’t disappoint, rushing for 91 yards on 16 carries against the Spartans. He ended up averaging 5.4 yards per carry the rest of the way last season, and his performance makes him the man to beat at running back when fall cap gets underway in August.
The biggest question mark about Alisa’s game is his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught just 5 passes for 55 yards last year, and had just one reception after being tabbed as the main man in the backfield (although that one catch did go for 22 yards and a touchdown against TCU). He’ll need to do better than in 2012.
Alisa’s running style in somewhat reminiscent of his cousin, the Cougar’s all-time leading rusher Harvey Unga. He’s a poor man’s Unga at this point for sure, but he has the ability to run with power on the inside, as well as the ability to bounce it outside.
Chances are that you could see both Alisa and Quezada in the backfield in a number of situations this season in Doman’s more up-tempo, no huddle approach. BYU is hoping to create fewer opportunities for teams to key on certain player packages this year.
Both could also benefit from the return to health of fullback Iona Pritchard. The sophomore suffered a severe injury last season when he broke his leg and dislocated his ankle in the opening kickoff of last year’s spring game. Pritchard could be a real difference maker, in the form of former Cougar Manase Tonga. His ability to block, run and catch passes out of that key position could really open up opportunities for Josh and Michael this coming season.
Behind these two are a number of talented, but inexperience players that could find themselves in the mix as as the season progresses.
BYU fans have been waiting for what seems like an eternity to see former four-star recruit Adam Hine (6-1, 195 Fr.) hit the field. Hine verbally committed to BYU as sophomore in high school in May of 2007. After two more star-studded prep seasons, a two-year mission and a redshirt year, Adam should see action in some capacity this season.
The Cougars could also call on the services of incoming true freshman Jamaal Williams (6-2, 200 Fr.) from Summit High School in California. Williams is a man-child with huge upside and all kinds of talent. Cougar coaches would like to redshirt the young man, but he might be called upon if the injury bug hits the BYU ball carriers this year.
Then there is the intriguing story of BYU rugby player Paul Lasike (6-0, 225 S0.). A star on the Cougars’ 2012 national championship team, Lasike in an amazing combination of size and speed. The only thing he lacks is experience playing the game at the college level.
Though there appears to be interesting talent waiting in the wings, the bulk of the the responsibility of production in the running game this season will fall upon BYU’s Q&A. The Cougars need both to stay healthy and build off of promising past performances.