PROVO — At the culmination of BYU's first scrimmage of fall practice this past week, offensive coordinator Brandon Doman stood at the end of the stadium field, hands on hips, eyes directed at the players dispersing in every direction.
I asked him what the headline should be after one week of practice.
"No question," Doman said. "It is the running backs." He didn't bat an eye or present defensive body language. That group stood out that much in week one.
That is a big deal.
It must be a big deal if Doman wants to structure BYU's offense into what he's studied, researched, sketched on whiteboards and designed heading into his second season as the Cougar offensive coordinator.
And after a week, he's seen significant reasons to be encouraged when compared to a year ago.
"It's not even the same offense," Doman said. "It's not even the same group of guys."
BYU's running attack wasn't a total failure a year ago. But it wasn't necessarily a major threat. Aside from quarterback Riley Nelson scrambling to keep drives alive, it is safe to say BYU didn't have a run-threat identity.
A year ago, BYU's best rushing effort came against lowly Idaho State (290 yards) and its worst against Utah (11). While the Cougars gained 282 yards against Oregon State, and 139 in the TCU game, they managed just 91 against Ole Miss and 43 at Texas.
Of BYU's 2,397 yards rushing — they got 1,297 (or 51.1 percent) against WAC teams.
JJ Di Luigi, the leading rusher (584 yards), wasn't a power runner but more of a slotback and receiver. Late in the season, Michael Alisa came on as a power runner and gained 455 yards, second to Di Luigi. Nelson was the third most productive with 392 yards. Senior Bryan Kariya, a hard-running inspirational leader, gained 298. A guy whom many expected to step up but was injured most of the time was Josh Quezada. He matched Kariya's 298.
Alisa and Riley return. But 60 percent of the above running corps is gone.
Doman has high praise for the new class. "Michael Alisa has had the best fall camp of any of them. He's known all summer we needed him to step up and he's answered the call. We've got Iona Pritchard back and he's ready to go, David Foote gives us a great changeup in speed and Zed Mendenhall gives us a different look. I like what I've seen in Adam Hine and freshman Jamaal Williams."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Friday he thought at least five running backs would have roles in the offense. And it could be more if punt returner JD Falslev and Alex Kuresa are used out of the backfield.
Doman believes this new crew is faster, stronger and more flexible. And they've got a little more potential to make a power statement. Combine that with quicker, more versatile blockers up front, and he believes BYU is on to something.
Doman said making the run game a force is one of his highest priorities. He carefully studied the last 30 years of Cougar football and the best were those that could run. The days of Luke Staley and Harvey Unga in recent history opened up everything.
"We can run the football very effectively and it's just a supplement to our passing game really," Doman said. "If you run it well and the safeties have to react to the box all the time then you are dealing against cover three and it's easier to throw against cover three.
"Defenses would rather leave a safety back and play cover four, cover two or cover six and those kinds of coverage where they can have two safeties."
Teams did that to the Cougar offense last year.
"Now, that will be a challenge for them in almost every set we get into," Doman predicts.
"We've minimized the number of sets we get into and we can run everything we can possibly run out of every single same formation and that will make us more of a threat."
Doman said another thing shaping up in his design is forcing the tight ends to play "attached" and "flexed" so defenders can't personnel game plan. "That makes us better too."
While Doman is optimistic and excited about the ball carriers and their potential in 2011, he is very much at ease with the way the offense and the rest of the team have found a leader in Nelson — a QB who isn't afraid to add to the run statistics if needed.
A full offseason of Nelson's leadership has rubbed off on the squad.
"This is his team now. He's taken us through the offseason. I attribute a lot of the grit, the physical fitness and current mindset of this team to him. I don't know if we could have done it without him. He's allowed us that culture because of the way he leads and the way he drives and I think it adds to the way coach Mendenhall does things with his defense; he's really charging with them and I think Riley would do the same thing if he was on the defense."
Before turning up the tunnel, Doman said he hopes BYU can run for 150 yards a game and pass for 300. He hopes the offense is capable of a solid average when they attempt to run.
"We don't profess to be the No. 1 rushing offense in the nation. We just want to rush four or five yards a play."
Pointing to history, Doman says if the Cougars can do that, they'll rarely lose and when they win, it could be by a wide margin.