Running backs coach AJ Steward embracing new role

Josh Ellis
AJ Steward coaches the running backs during spring ball on Mar. 19. Steward coached at Rice last year and has quickly embraced the BYU community. (Josh Ellis)

Among the new points of interest during BYU football’s spring camp are the running backs and their new coach AJ Steward.

Steward was hired as the last piece of Jeff Grimes’s offensive staff in January, coming to BYU from Rice University in Houston, where he also coached the running backs.

The Rice ground game averaged 187.0 yards per game in 2017, ranking No. 2 in Conference USA and No. 38 nationally. Steward joined the Rice staff prior to the 2012 season as an offensive graduate assistant after playing college football at the University of Kansas.

Originally recruited as a quarterback, the St. Louis native switched to wide receiver before finding a home at tight end, playing in 37 career games for the Jayhawks from 2008 to 2011.

Steward, 28, was also a four-time member of the athletic director’s honor roll at Kansas, where he graduated with a degree in health and physical education in 2012.

“I love the support of the program,” Steward said on his first impressions of BYU. “When I go around Provo with my BYU gear on, people notice it and say, ‘We’re happy to have you here.’ It’s just a very welcoming environment.”

Steward said the BYU coaching staff has been a big part of his positive experience so far, and with so many new additions they can start with a clean slate following last year’s 4-9 season.

“It kind of helps not being a part of it,” Steward said on last year’s result. “This is a brand new team; this is a brand new season.”

At the same time, Steward said there is “fuel to the fire,” knowing the team can’t go back to their “old ways,” and must keep improving.

Steward takes over a group of running backs that went through a slew of injuries last year, along with new recruits trying to prove themselves.

Returning players Riley Burt and Squally Canada are back and leading the running game, while newcomers Zach Katoa and Kavika Fonua have emerged as threats as well.

“The biggest thing is effort – that’s something you can’t coach,” Steward said on what he’s liked from the group so far in spring ball. “Everyday they show up you can tell they’re here to get better. It helps as a coach to know that these guys are going to put forth the effort to get better.”

Steward said the group still has a long way to go, but the effort and dedication to improving are the most important thing at this point.

“I want to establish a solid rock foundation right now, not sand-like, so that when we get to fall camp we’re focusing our energy on things that are going to help us down the road and not elementary level things,” Steward said. “If we can get out of (spring camp) with a great foundation, I’ll be happy as a coach.”

Steward understands the pressure that comes with coaching a BYU football team, and he embraces the challenge to improve and make fans proud.

“These fans are diehard, so it pushes you when you’re a part of it,” Steward explained. “We want to be great, not just for the guys in the building, but for everyone else who’s supporting nationwide. It’s fun to be a part of this.”

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