BYU had plans to lean on running back Jamaal Williams a bit more this season with hopes of keeping star quarterback Taysom Hill upright. The team has lost Hill to season-ending injuries twice in three years and the coaches would like to get a full 12 games from the senior.
Those plans became less solid last week when the school announced Williams was leaving the university due to personal reasons, but is scheduled to return in 2016. Williams, who was on pace to set the school’s career rushing record, was slated to be a key component of what Bronco Mendenhall has said could be the best offense in BYU history.
The offense must now forge ahead without its top running back.
“We miss Jamaal, jeez, but we have to adjust without him,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “I don’t know if we have a 30-carry-a-game guy. Right now, I have my suspicions that we probably don’t.
“Anytime you lose a talented player, I’m not quite sure you can just replace him.”
The Cougars are now staring at a running-back-by-committee situation. Junior Algernon Brown, seniors Adam Hine and Nate Carter and sophomores Toloa’i Ho Ching and Colby Hansen are all in the mix as the team goes through its first full week of preseason workouts. Brown, Carter and Hine combined for 768 yards and three touchdowns on 154 carries in 2014.
“I saw it as a good opportunity, time for me to kind of just man up,” Brown said. “Not relying on other guys. Just kind of know what I have to do and go do it.
“All the running backs were like, hey look, this is our year. We have a good chance to get everyone on the field and do what running backs do. We have the mantra to just pound the ball. Pound the ball and make plays.”
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said there aren’t a lot changes outside of the depth at the position. He said they won’t scrap the entire plan, but Anae acknowledged tweaks have to be made. So far in camp, there’s haven’t been specialized calls to match certain skill sets. But that could change.
“When the season starts that will be prime directive No. 1 — to make sure the running back in there is doing something that he can find success doing,” Anae said. “The thing about Jamaal is, he did it all. You didn’t have to plug and play. … Without that, then it does become more of a skill-set arrangement.”
Not only will Williams’ 2,526 yards of career rushing and 23 touchdowns be missed, but the senior was a strong locker room presence. Running backs coach Mark Atuaia stressed the energy and other intangibles that are missing without his personality around the facilities.
“We’re all sad … but we have to push forward no matter what,” Hine said. “We learned last year that anyone can go down at any time. Kind of the same feeling.
“When it comes down to business, we just have to pick it up and go with who we have. The way we’ve always been trained, we’re ready for it.”
Hill said he was “super bummed” after finding out his backfield mate would be missing, but still believes the offense can do what they originally planned to. BYU fans hope so because Hill is the key to any success entering a brutal schedule that begins with trips to Nebraska, UCLA, Michigan and a home game against Boise State. The Cougars started 2014 4-0, including an upset of No. 25 Texas, before Hill suffered a season-ending leg injury.
The Cougars were planning on fewer called runs for Hill to reduce the risk. That idea was a lot easier with Williams than without. Anae hopes that the season will end with the same amount of rushing production they would have gotten from Williams, just spread out among multiple backs.
“It does become an issue where the (entire) team’s got to answer,” Anae said. “I don’t think you can answer with just one guy because Jamaal’s such an impact player. The way to make it up is with 11 guys as a group.”