The running back corps for BYU dominated against New Mexico State on Nov. 17, running for a collective total of 317 yards and averaging nearly eight yards per carry. Freshman Lopini Katoa and senior Matt Hadley provided all of the Cougars’ touchdowns with four and two each respectively.
The Cougars feature a unique group of running backs, with three different starters throughout the season in Katoa, Hadley and senior Squally Canada. Add junior Riley Burt into the mix and that gives BYU four backs with at least 38 attempts on the season. These backs combined for 1,355 rushing yards on 5.3 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns for a program historically known for its passing game.
“It’s a great dynamic,” running backs coach AJ Steward said of his unit. “We have a lot of leaders within our group, whether they be vocal- or example-type guys.”
Steward, a Kansas Jayhawk during his playing career as a wide receiver, has found success in his first season at the helm of BYU’s backs, with the players appreciating the extra attention to detail he brings to their perspective.
“Coach Steward is very detailed and very enthusiastic which is really good for all of us,” Hadley said. “Running back is a really tough position and having a coach who makes sure that we pay attention to all the small details every single day is huge.”
Practice has been a major growth zone for the backs, allowing them to prepare for future game scenarios and situations.
“In the way that Coach Steward runs our practices we all have opportunities to prove ourselves,” Katoa said. “It’s not a surprise to us when guys go out and make plays because they’ve been doing it during practice all week. Coach Steward is really detailed, he doesn’t waste any time, and everything we do has a purpose.”
The practice execution has been huge for players like Hadley who didn’t receive his first carries until midseason. In his first season as a running back after playing linebacker and safety for most of his career, Hadley has contributed as a valuable playmaker with over 400 yards of total offense and four touchdowns.
“I try to prepare these guys for their opportunity. I pour into everyone and tell them that their opportunity is going to come at some point,” Steward said. “Every day you have to get better, and it’s not always easy to have that mentality when you’re not getting in the game, but luckily we have really good guys who prepare themselves well and work hard for every opportunity.”
Steward said he has been impressed with the work ethic and determination he has seen from his unit this season.
“This is one of the hardest-working groups I’ve ever seen,” Steward said. “There is no doubt that they leave it all on the field, and I don’t take that for granted as a coach. I’m very hard on them during the week. I try to make practice even harder than games for them, and they do a very good job preparing every week so we’re all confident going into the game.”
Canada, who dominated in early season road upsets at Arizona and Wisconsin, has spent most of the season’s second half in a limited role due to various injuries. Despite the health setbacks, the senior and former Washington State transfer has enjoyed watching his teammates step up in his absence.
“To see them finally get their shot and make the best of their opportunity really makes me happy, especially when they go out there and pile up yards and score touchdowns,” Canada said. “Coach Steward is very detailed and precise in what he wants from us, which has helped us a lot.”
Canada has served as a leader through example this season, with both he and Steward crediting the rest of the group with strong leadership qualities as well.
“Brayden (El-Bakri) is a vocal guy, Matt (Hadley) is the same way and always lets you know how he feels,” Canada said. “Riley (Burt) is really quiet but he always wants to prove that he can ball, and (Lopini) Katoa is a laid back and chill guy, but he’ll laugh at anything. We’re a great group with a solid mix of backgrounds.”
Despite the diverse backgrounds, Katoa said the group works well together and has grown close.
“We’re a really different group with a lot of different personalities,” Katoa said. “We all come from pretty different areas, so it’s interesting being able to all come together and have fun throughout the grind each day.”
Hadley agrees football has definitely served as a unifying force for the group.
“We don’t do a whole lot off the field, but when we’re together around the football offices we’re a very tight group of friends and everybody gets each other,” Hadley said.
With the long-awaited rivalry matchup against Utah looming ahead on Nov. 24 and a Bowl Game on the horizon, Steward said he hopes his group can continue to execute as they have all season.
“It’s always been about execution,” Steward said. “Whenever we’ve executed this season, we’ve had really good opportunities and we’ve made the most of them, but when we don’t execute at the highest level we tend to struggle. Whenever we pay attention to details, things turn out well.”