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Sunday, April 04, 2010

BYU football: Cougars' backfield well-stocked for season

There was a time last winter in the weeks leading up to BYU's bowl game that running backs coach Lance Reynolds was having a few sleepless nights -- and not just because of his own health problems.

Harvey Unga, the leading rusher in school history, was said to be leaning toward leaving early for the NFL Draft, and fullback Manase Tonga was about to play in his final game as a Cougar -- BYU's 44-20 win over Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The cupboard was looking bare.

But in the space of a couple weeks in late December and early January, the situation changed dramatically. Although the fullback position is unsettled, it is an embarrassment of riches for

Reynolds at the main running back position.

Unga, who has 3,455 career rushing yards, decided to return. Then the Cougars landed Joshua Quezada, a high school star from La Habra, Calif., who not only graduated early so he could enroll in January and participate in spring ball, but showed up as prepared as any freshman in recent memory.

"We are in as good a shape at running back as we've ever been," Reynolds said. "We have some good players. The three older guys [Unga and juniors J.J. DiLuigi and Bryan Kariya] are solid, and the younger guys are looking good, too."

Unga is clearly the No. 1 ball carrier, and has actually gotten more work this spring than ever before, Reynolds said, because he is healthy, a bit lighter (237 pounds) and will be needed to shoulder the offensive load because the Cougars will be breaking in a new starting quarterback.

"Harvey is as good a player as we've ever had at BYU," said Reynolds. "He's just special."

DiLuigi will be the second option for carries this fall, although Quezada will be difficult to keep off the field if he continues to do what he's done the first three weeks of spring camp, Reynolds acknowledged.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah," Reynolds said. "Josh is learning like crazy. He is a real smart football player. Besides being talented, he is very alert, he has good sense, he knows what is going on around him. He learns quickly, pays great attention. Super reliable kid. He is impressive, not only as a player, but all the other stuff, too.

"Yeah, he could play. He's way ahead of where I thought he was going to be."

DiLuigi said he welcomes the competition.

"I just see it as more opportunities for us to get rest and be able to make more plays," he said. "The more Harvey, myself and Bryan can get rest, the better we will be."

Reynolds said the depth chart right now would list Unga, DiLuigi and Kariya in that order, with Quezada and redshirt freshman Malosi Te'o jockeying to be the fourth option.

Kariya can also play fullback, as he did at times last year. Right now, Tonga's old position is being held down by sophomore walk-on Zed Mendenhall, nephew of coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Mike Hague, the former prep MVP from Brighton High, is still recovering from ankle surgery and is not completely healthy. The Cougars signed three other running backs in February who will join them this fall: Skyline's Algernon Brown, Drew Phillips of Boaz, Ala., and A.J. Moore of Murrieta, Calif.

drew@sltrib.com

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