In BYU football's new-look, high-speed offensive attack, as a running back lines up he's got to have a lot of things running through his head: The play, the position, the defense, the gap, the blocking, the route, the footwork and the quarterback's tendencies.
All of that has to be sorted out in only a few seconds before the ball is snapped.
With only three weeks of spring practices completed, the Cougars still have plenty to improve on — and some days they feel it more than others.
“It’s just spring and I know we are going to get better as time goes on,” said BYU sophomore running back Jamaal Williams after Friday’s practice. “I was a little upset with myself today because I didn’t feel like I did as good as I thought I should do at practice.”
But before he could let that concern fester too much, in stepped a former Cougar running back who knows a little bit about pressure and responsibility: Harvey Unga, who is currently with the Chicago Bears.
“Since Harvey (Unga) was there, he talked to me afterwards and told me to keep my head up, that this is spring and you’ll get through it,” Williams said. “This is my first spring and I just thought you had to be at your best all the time. I’m just getting better as time goes by and I’m learning you have to be patient with yourself and you’ll improve.”
Williams said it’s just another example of what Unga has been doing to help out the BYU running backs.
“He comes when he can and when he does, if I don’t see him he says he’ll be looking at film on how practice goes,” Williams said. “He tells us how we can improve from what he sees. After practice today, he gave me some advice and a little talk about how how I can improve. It was basically learning how to deal with spring football since basically this is my first one. I really didn’t know what to expect.”
Unga explained that he knows how much pressure and responsibility Williams feels and he’s glad he can be there to provide a little perspective.
“You kind of tend to roll with the punches and learn how people react to things,” Unga said. “Being young, that was the biggest thing. I told him not stress about those things. Get to know your team during spring, get to know who you are playing with, get to know the coaching staff, get to know the offense. This is a great time to learn, not just football but also about the team. All I told him was to relax and that you learn things as you go during spring ball. You’re not going to win any games in spring.”
Cougar senior running back Michael Alisa said everyone goes through the process of figuring that out for themselves.
“I think some guys get stressed out about it but something I've learned along the way that I want to help them learn is don't focus on the end result,” he said. “Enjoy the process. Enjoy learning and when you mess up, have a short-term memory and go get it the next play.”
Alisa admitted that there will be errors made by the running backs as the team ramps up the speed of the offense because there are a lot of demands.
“Everyone has to be on the same page, from having your steps right so the quarterbacks have the same feel with every running back to having everyone in good shape so you can all be out there at a moment's notice,” Alisa said. “Where it's going to impact defenses is that we'll always have fresh legs. That's an advantage to us because we're going to be flying around while others are huffing and puffing.”
Unga said he sees running backs having to adapt to doing things at that pace.
“I think the tempo adds a ton because your mind is working at a totally different pace,” he said. “Some running backs don’t click when things are like that. I think a lot of time running backs want to run more methodically and be patient. They like understanding what they are doing and going through a thinking process instead of just going. It’s a change of pace and you have to roll with that.”
But Alisa added that there is a trade-off: The increased speed is balanced by not being a complex.
“This offense isn't as complicated as the offenses we've run the past few years,” he said. “Everyone has been picking it up a lot faster. Under that offense, it was like studying for the ACT, like having another class. This one is fast but it is simplified. The bigger load falls on the physical side, not the mental.”
Alisa also explained the offensive coordinator Robert Anae understands there will be mistakes, but doesn’t dwell on them.
“He'll nip you in the bud right when you make a mistake, but then it is forget about it and get to the next play — or run the same play again to get it right,” Alisa said. “For the younger guys who are learning the plays, he's done a good job of taking the pressure off.”
Unga believes Williams is on the right track to embracing the responsibility and the pressure, and using it to make himself better.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete and a great football player, and with all that comes all the responsibility,” Unga said. “He’s obviously going to take that on his shoulders and he’s the type of player who wants to win, who wants to succeed, who wants to see his team succeed.”
Williams appreciated the mentoring he has received from the former BYU star running back, but Unga said he’s just glad that he can be around to “pay it forward” and help out the running backs in any way he can.
“What helped me was having Curtis Brown and Fui Vakapuna and Manase Tonga and those guys to do the same thing,” Unga said. “I’m just trying to pay it forward because I know without those guys talking to me, I would’ve struggled a ton coming into the program. It probably would’ve been a mess if I’d tried to do it on my own.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.