Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
Liberty coach Rich Muraco sensed some tension last year when he told star running back Ty Byrd that he planned to bring up then-freshman running back Niko Kapeli to the varsity team.
Muraco wanted Byrd, Kapeli and Teu Tai to split carries. Byrd wasn’t sold on the idea.
“I felt like after my sophomore year with all the seniors graduating, everything was going to be mine,” Byrd said. “I thought I was going to be the guy getting 30 carries a game.”
It took a while for Byrd to get used to the arrangement, but by the time his senior year started this fall he had fully embraced it. And he couldn’t be more thrilled that he did.
Because of their depth at running back, the Patriots have reached the Sunrise Region championship game. Liberty travels to Las Vegas High at 8 Friday night with the winner moving on to the state semifinals.
“A lot of teams this time of year, the running back is really beat up because he’s run the ball 300 times,” Muraco said. “With our rotation, they are all fresh and can all do damage every time they come in the game.”
Byrd, Kapeli and Tai all cause that damage in different ways. Byrd likened Tai to a bull — he’s not going to shy from contact. Tai wants to run the defender over.
Byrd said Kapeli was the cheetah of the group — elusive, fast and unpredictable. He didn’t have an animal reference for himself.
“Me, I’ve got both,” Byrd said. “I’ve got the power and the speed.”
Byrd missed four games toward the end of the regular season with a knee injury. The absence of an offensive force like Byrd is the kind of adversity some teams could never recover from.
At Liberty, Kapeli and Tai filled in without any problem. By the time Byrd came back for the playoffs, the only question was how to find carries for all three.
“It’s a great problem to have as a coach,” Muraco said.
Muraco decides to either start Byrd or Kapeli and then rotates the two every couple of carries until one develops a rhythm. He sends Tai in once the defense is showing signs of fatigue.
“When I’m in there, I’m in there to get a first down and maybe a few more yards,” Tai said. “Those guys are also in there because they can break it for a touchdown.”
Despite Tai’s reputation as a bruiser, he actually leads the trio with seven yards per carry.
Tai credits working with Byrd and Kapeli for making him a better back this season.
“They’ve taught me how to run properly,” Tai said. “I used to run with my arms swinging out like a chicken.”
It could be argued that none of the Liberty three will be the best running back on the field Friday night. Las Vegas has a standout of its own at the position in junior Farrell Victor.
Victor has rushed for 1,382 yards and 14 touchdowns this season on 179 carries. He has Muraco’s attention.
“We’ve talked about wrapping up, tackling, staying with our assignments and not trying to be the hero,” Muraco said. “Hopefully, our defense can contain their playmakers that way.”
Byrd said he thought it was impossible to slow all three Liberty running backs. Stop one, Byrd believes, and the other two will step up.
That attitude shows how far Byrd has come. It wasn’t too long ago when he would have said he was the only back the Patriots needed.
“That doesn’t matter anymore,” Byrd said. “I look at it as a good thing. It’s been fun.”