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Provo • Having spent the past three years of his 14-year college coaching career at Navy, new BYU running backs coach Joe DuPaix is familiar with hard-nosed, rugged, hardworking ball carriers.
The former Skyline High and Southern Utah University standout happily reports that he's found the same type of player in Provo, extolling the virtues of the Cougars' three primary returning running backs: seniors Bryan Kariya and JJ Di Luigi and sophomore Joshua Quezada.
But for a team with designs on returning to the winning ways of all-time leading rusher Harvey Unga's era (2007-09), is this three-headed approach to the position enough? Again, the Cougars enter the 2011 season with plenty of depth at running back, but without a go-to guy, a bona fide star such as Unga, or before him, Curtis Brown.
"I think [the rushing attack] will be similar to what it was a year ago," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "I think it is Juice [Quezada]. I think it is JJ and I think it is Bryan Kariya. I think that is going to be good enough. I like where we are that way."
The Cougars rushed for 2,185 yards last year to their opponents' 1,802, but they were miserable on the ground early when they desperately needed to take some pressure off then-freshman quarterback Jake Heaps. They had just 108 yards at Florida State, 91 yards against Nevada and 65 at Utah State when their season bottomed out.
Still, there doesn't seem to be much concern in Provo three practices into preseason camp. Quezada, considered the next big BYU rushing star, hasn't yet had a carry due to a moderately sprained ankle; Kariya and Di Luigi have looked OK; while junior David Foote, sophomore Ryan Folsom and others wait in the wings for their chances, knowing that it will take a couple of injuries to the three main guys for them to get on the field during a meaningful part of games.
DuPaix said the running back-by-committee system will work fine.
"I don't see why not. But, at the same time, it is not a set deal," he said. "We come out and practice every day and compete every day for playing time. So, depending on how the guys perform and compete and to see who rises above the others that will basically determine who is going to play. … I am not opposed at all to go running back by committee because it is a team sport. If we have to use two or three or four guys, that is fine."
BYU's leading rusher last year with 917 yards on 178 carries, a 5.2-yard average, Di Luigi wants to be an every-down back and believes he's capable despite his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame. He prepared himself for that in the offseason, he said, hitting the weight room hard and diminishing his overall body fat.
But he's also realistic, knowing that Quezada is the future and Kariya is Mr. Steady. Zed Mendenhall will be the fullback, although that position will likely see fewer plays in new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman's offense.
"I think the coaches are doing a really good job of spreading out the playing time, putting guys into position to maximize their talents and make bigger plays," Di Luigi said. "By committee, that's how the pros do it. That's how we are trying to do it.
"I think if you have fewer plays, but the ones you have are maximized by your talent, you will be able to get better yards, get better stats. So you don't really need to get the ball every time."
Di Luigi could also be used more this season as a slot receiver to take advantage of his excellent receiving skills. He is the leading returner/pass catcher, having caught 45 balls for 443 yards last year.
"All these guys are very versatile players," DuPaix said. "They are going to run the ball, they are going to block for the other runners. They are going to run routes and catch the ball. Everything that is involved in the game of football, they are going to be a part of. So it is going to be fun to watch these guys continue to compete."
BYU's rushing production last season
GP Att Yards Avg. TDs Long
JJ Di Luigi 13 178 917 5.2 8 46
Bryan Kariya 13 137 537 3.9 6 18
Joshua Quezada 13 99 505 5.1 5 26
Riley Nelson 3 31 148 4.8 0 24
Ryan Folsom 7 8 92 11.5 0 74