Lopini Katoa laughs has he answers questions posed by the media on June 18. (Addie Blacker)

Lopini Katoa impressed during his rookie season, notching eight touchdowns on 5.57 yards per carry. The sophomore running back already has the tools to be a star for BYU football, and he now finds himself in a unique position as he will be looked upon to be a leader in 2019 with only a single season of NCAA experience on his resume. He is the only returning running back that played significant minutes for BYU during the 2018 season.

Like any freshman, Katoa was astonished by the spotlight of playing football for BYU — the lights, the media, the program itself, everything. When he first came onto the field, Katoa said he remembers his nervousness disappearing. He felt the energy of game day as he went through the tunnel and was ready to go when he hit the field. He wished he could have just jumped right into the game rather than having to worry about all of the warm-up routines.

His first experience with the media came after BYU beat McNeese State on Sept. 22. Katoa ran for 64 yards and tallied two touchdowns on the afternoon. After the game, Katoa was one of the players selected to answer questions from the media.

“It was crazy, I’m used to changing and going home with my family,” Katoa said. “Sitting there, they had all the stats laid out, that was new to me. They told me exactly what I did and everything, it was a new experience to me.”

Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo
Katoa dives for one of his two touchdowns against McNeese State on Sept. 22. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

Establishing himself as a dual-threat running back will be key for BYU’s offense during the 2019 season. As a freshman, Katoa recorded 20 catches for 114 yards, average 5.7 yards per catch. In addition to his stats through the air, Katoa also ran for 423 yards on just 76 attempts. His longest run of the season came in his final game as a freshman, recording a 50-yard run on top of eight touchdowns against New Mexico State on Nov. 17. He ran for a total of 155 yards that game, giving BYU fans a glimpse of what could become his routine stats in 2019.

With just a single year of collegiate football experiences under his belt, Katoa will be looked upon to be a leader for the team. Katoa played in 11 games for BYU last season, making him the most experienced running back that is returning for the Cougars. BYU lost three of its main running backs after the 2018 season — Squally Canada, Matt Hadley and Riley Burt — but gained two huge pieces when Rice graduate transfer Emmanuel Esukpa and South Carolina graduate transfer Ty’Son Williams decided to finish their collegiate football careers as Cougars.

The three running backs are business as usual — preparing to take on whatever workload is given to them, rather than having each athlete take on specific roles.

“We’re all just preparing to do it all,” Katoa said. “If we can have two back sets or three back sets, that’s what we’ve been talking about. I’ve been joking with Coach Steward that we should just put three running backs on the field at once.”

Being a leader also means being humble, and Katoa understands there is still a lot he can learn, especially since there will be some level of mentoring with players that have already played four seasons of NCAA football. Remaining teachable while being a teacher will be a key lesson for the sophomore running back.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
Lopini Katoa snags a pass during the 2019 BYU spring camp. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“I’ve already learned from their work ethic and knowledge they bring to certain situations,” Katoa said. “We go through our plays together and stuff. Fall camp will be a really good time to see them work and to see things I can learn from them. We can just build of each other.”

One thing that will set Katoa apart as a leader, regardless of his class status, is knowing the playbook. Katoa said he wanted to know the offense and schemes for other positions so his coaches can put him wherever they need him. He said he has completely healed from all his injuries — he feels like he is bigger, faster and stronger, while surpassing all of his goals for strength conditioning prior to the start of the 2019 football season.

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