The BYU football program may not be known for the running backs it has produced like it is for the quarterbacks or tight ends, but it has developed a number of very talented performers. Names like Bellini, Heimuli, Staley, Willis, Brown and Unga are certainly familiar to the Cougar faithful.
In the last four decades, all of the top running backs in Provo have had to do a lot more than just take handoffs.
One of the most important jobs has been catching the ball out of the backfield.
"There are few teams in college football that have linebackers that are more athletic than our running backs in pass routes," said BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "Many teams don't use them coming out of the backfield but we find in our offense it gives us an advantage. It's who we are and what we do. We haven't been great at it the past few years but we're going to be great at it again this year."
Although heading into the 2012 season it's unclear which of the BYU running backs — if any — will add their names to the lexicon of Cougar greats, all of them understand the importance of being able to make plays in the pass game.
"When Coach Doman introduced the new identity of the offense, I think the running backs wondered where they'd fit in with more passing," said senior running back Michael Alisa. "But he clarified that we need to have a good run game to compliment the pass game, plus we have to be able to catch the ball as well."
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said that having backs with that type of ability can be a big challenge for a defense.
"It's tough, especially when you have good receivers you have to cover down field," he explained. "If the zone keeps sagging or the pressure doesn't get there, backs can release who then are good in the open field."
Running backs coach Joe Dupaix wasn't quite ready to start heaping on the accolades just yet for his unit as far as what he's seen in the pass game.
"They are doing a good job," he said. "It's a learning process. They need to get better at protection and getting out, which all part of what we do in the offense. They get out in the routes and do a nice job. They are all catching the ball well but we've got to keep getting better."
One of the players Doman said has caught his attention is senior David Foote.
"Foote has the versatility as far as being a pass protector, then can run out and run an option route or be in place as a check-down," Doman said. "He has as much or more overall experience than anyone in the backfield. I'm also please with how Michael Alisa and Iona Pritchard are progressing."
Foote said it's just one of the many elements the unit is focusing on during camp.
"I think we need to pass protect first and we need to be able to run the ball," Foote explained. "If we can run the ball well, it opens things up for passes out of the backfield. That's a huge part of our game and we need to keep getting better at it."
The Cougar quarterbacks have frequently targeted the RBs out of the backfield during camp. While that has meant a lot of catches, there have also been a few throws that have been dropped.
"Today wasn't our best day," Foote admitted. "But it's athletics. If you have a day like that, you have to forget it and bounce back. We catch ball all the time and if you make a mistake, you just move on."
Mendenhall was still very straightforward on what he wants to see from the offense when they get their hands on the ball.
"We need to get better," the Cougar head coach said.
Dupaix said he was confident the running backs would do better, that it was just a small lack of focus.
Foote said the backs know the opportunities will be there; it's up to them to make the most of it.
"We know that we are heavily involved in the pass game. If all else fails, we're the check-down, we're the go-to guys," he said. "We have to be there and be ready. I know several times running backs have been some of the leading receivers. We have to be ready to do that when called upon.
Some chippiness at practice: The Cougars had a couple of scuffles during practice on Tuesday, including a hit that resulted in senior linebacker Uona Kaveinga being sent off the field.
"It's getting difficult to practice against each other," Mendenhall said. "They're starting to not like each other very much, coaches and players. That's about typical for this time of year."
Mendenhall just said the sendoff was just a situation of a player not playing within the practice rules.
No big changes on kick returns: Mendenhall confirmed what most suspected in stating that juniors JD Falslev and Cody Hoffman are secure in their roles as the kick returners.
"The rest is kind of up for grabs," the coach said. "Alex Kuresa is actually doing a pretty nice job, Joe Sampson has a chance as does Cody Raymond."
Roster changes: BYU announced Tuesday that defensive back Jacob Hannemann — a Lone Peak grad — and wide receiver Taggart Krueger have been added to the roster.
Spots for those two opened up because sophomore offensive lineman Fono Vakalahi will be transferring, while senior offensive lineman Walter Kahaiali'i will require surgery on his knee, which will end his career.
The word was that Kahaiali'i would stay and help the team out as an undergraduate assistant.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.