PROVO — First-year BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia has a bit of an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.
While other first-year coaches on offense have their work cut out for them to find adequate replacements for departed players, Atuaia is working with almost every contributor in the backfield from last season.
Jamaal Williams is back after a breakthrough freshman campaign; Michael Alisa is fully recovered from injury and raring to go; and rugby star Paul Lasike works to acclimate more to the gridiron after a promising sophomore campaign.
Throw in Adam Hine, who enjoyed a stellar spring camp, and running back looks as stacked as any position group on the team.
So does Atuaia feel he has it made in the shade compared to other offensive staffers?
“I’ll tell you this, where much is given, much is required. And that‘s the truth,” Atuaia answered. “Coach (Joe) DuPaix and coach (Lance Reynolds) both put in the work getting these guys to where they are now and I’m just benefiting from their great coaching. But the pressure on me is to make them even better and that’s the goal.”
The main focus for Atuaia is to help his players become more complete players.
“The easiest thing for any new running back is to run the football,” he said. “I mean, you take the ball and you go with it. What’s so hard about that? The hard part is learning to be a productive player without the football and that’s the focus this year for players like Jamaal, who obviously knows how to run the ball very well.”
Williams tallied 802 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground and 27 receptions for another 315 yards as a true freshman last season. For his sophomore campaign, Williams has added strength and is working to improve his ability to block.
“That’s the thing for me and my focus,” Williams said. “I want to be in there for every down and I can’t do that if I can’t do everything. I’m focusing hard on picking up blitzes, running routes and all that. Running the football well — that’s obviously a big part of it, but it’s just one part of it.”
Williams snared the starting responsibilities after Alisa’s season ended early because of a broken arm. Alisa returned for the Poinsettia Bowl, but by that time his younger teammate had firmly established himself as the featured back.
“Fans and (media) may have forgotten about Michael Alisa, but we haven’t,” Atuaia said. “He was playing very well before getting hurt and he’s going to play a big role in our offense this year. He’s reliable and can do a lot of things for us.”
Meanwhile, sophomore Hine has always practiced well when healthy and is coming off a very productive spring practice session.
“Adam needs to be more reliable catching the ball and blocking, but he’s doing great,” Atuaia said. “He knows how to work and he’s proved that. He just needs to keep proving that and he’s going to be fine. He’s going to help us a lot this year, I think.”
Lasike and junior Iona Pritchard round out the slate of running backs expected to contribute in 2013.
The problem for Atuaia isn’t so much getting production out of his group, but managing so many able players effectively. Spring practices saw the new offense run out of single-back formations, which could further compound the problem.
“This offense is still developing and sure, we went one-back in the spring a lot and it’s what coach (Robert) Anae mostly ran while he was here last time, but we’re still looking at things,” Atuaia said. “We’re going to move guys around a lot and there will be times when we use two-back, split some of them out and even have some of them in playing H-back. There are a lot of options and it‘s exciting.”
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