BYU football supporters had some good reasons to be optimistic about the depth at running back for the Cougars coming into 2019.
Graduate transfers TySon Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa brought veteran experience, while sophomore Lopini Katoa was the bright future.
And freshman Sione Finau?
Well, he was biding his time doing the best he could.
“It’s been a very good experience,” Finau said. “I kept going back to what my mom said, to just wait for your time, as well as Coach AJ Stewart and Coach Jeff Grimes. I was waiting for my time and playing my role. That’s what I’ve done. I started on special teams for the kickoff return and then they trusted me with the offense and my role on the offense.”
Finau has led the BYU offense in rushing yards in each of its last two wins, picking up 89 yards on 11 carries with a touchdown against Boise State and then tacking on 72 yards on 15 carries at Utah State.
“He’s worked his butt off since he got here,” Steward said. “He had a natural maturation process that you see from a true freshman to a redshirt freshman. I’m not surprised at all, knowing how much work he puts in every day. He’s a guy who you have to tell him to get out because you want someone else to take a rep. He’s disappointed when he can’t take a rep. Every rep at practice is 100 miles per hour and 100 percent, and that’s why he’s gotten so much better in a short amount of time.”
Katoa has also emerged as a versatile back as he had 171 total yards against the Aggies (129 receiving, 42 rushing).
“He is a year older than Sione but he is the same way,” Steward said. “When you watch film of practice, he looks like he is playing in a game. Those guys make it hard for themselves in practice so when they get in the game, the game slows down. The way they approach practice every day is why you see the success that they have.”
Grimes said Finau and Katoa have both improved “a great deal.”
“What they have been able to do by focusing on their reads and running hard has really allowed us to take a step forward,” Grimes said.
The emergence of the freshman and the sophomore (as well as injuries) have resulted in fewer opportunities for the veterans like Esukpa.
That can be tough but Steward had nothing but praise for Esukpa, who has been limited recently.
“He is the ultimate team guy,” Steward said. “He is coaching guys up in the game and in practice when he is not in. He understands. He’s been with me long enough to know that we’re always going to play the guys who are going to give us the best chance. The guys who are hot we are usually going to keep rolling with and he’s fine with that. He knows that I love him and that we all love him as coaches, and he trusts the decisions that we make. Ultimately, he just wants to win.”
Finau said Williams and Esukpa helped him get a better grasp of what it takes to be a college athlete.
“They helped me with the mental aspect of what it takes to be a running back here at BYU,” Finau said. “I’ve talked to them before the games, asked what they think about on every play and how they try to make the most out of every run. I’ve tried to grasp that. When I got my moment, I tried to make the most out of it.”
The entire BYU offense has done much better at making the most of their opportunities on the field in the last two games, something that Finau believes started with extra effort on the days leading up to the games.
“It’s been about getting quality reps every play, trying to win our one-on-one matchups and putting the best players in the best position,” Finau said. “I feel like we’ve done that and Coach Jeff Grimes has done a phenomenal job trying to put certain players where they need to be and trying to get a win.”