PROVO — The group of skill position players for the BYU football team this season is largely the same as last year’s. All of the running backs return, with only Luke Ashworth and O'Neill Chambers missing at receiver.
“Guys know what they’re doing, and we definitely have a head start on this season because of it,” said senior running back JJ Di Luigi. “We also have a lot of guys that have different strengths, so I think there is a good mix, especially at running back.”
Di Luigi will shoulder the running back duties along with senior Bryan Kariya and sophomore Joshua Quezada. The three of them combined for all but 226 of the team’s combined 2,185 yards gained last season.
At receiver, fans can expect to see a three-man rotation of McKay Jacobson, Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo this season. Other players who will be in the mix will be JD Falslev at the slot position and Rhen Brown and Dallin Cutler, who both made great strides during fall camp.
“We’re on the same page,” quarterback Jake Heaps said about his receivers. “You can’t come close to comparing where we are right now to where we were last year. It’s completely different and we’ll be starting off a lot better because of it.”
As a tight end group, they will certainly look to improve upon their very un-BYU-like 34 catches for 451 yards and no touchdowns collective production a season ago. “Our tight ends will be more productive this year, I can promise you that,” said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman.
Sophomore Austin Holt will be the team’s primary tight end, with fellow sophomore Marcus Mathews likely being the chief option when the team goes with wide splits. They’ll both continue to be pushed by sophomores Richard Wilson and Devin Mahina.
The workhorse of all the skill position players looks to be Di Luigi. Last season saw him lead the team in both receptions, rushes, yards gained rushing and in overall touchdowns.
“He does everything for us on offense,” Heaps said about Di Luigi. “He’s efficient in every part of his game, and he’s someone we’ll rely on a lot again this year. We worked out a lot together this summer, so he might be catching even more passes this coming year.”
It doesn’t take too many observations of team drills to determine that Ross Apo will likely be as good as advertised. When he fully participates, a long reception is almost always in the cards.
“Ross is a special player,” said Heaps. “He’s such a vertical threat that if he’s not catching the ball that you’re going to have to PI (pass interfere) him. He’s so good that it’s really the only decision the DB (defensive back) has. They can let him catch the ball or they can get a penalty.”
The most under-reported story of this fall practice session was the lack of dropped passes from a season ago. Last fall's practice session saw numerous dropped passes, which bled into the season.
“Everyone is catching the ball better this year,” said Heaps. “I don’t think there is just one guy that I can point out as someone I can depend on all the time to catch a critical pass because I really feel that they all can. They’re a lot more confident this year, and they’re catching everything.”
There’s two of them among the offensive skill players. First and foremost is Austin Holt.
“He’s like another offensive lineman out there,” said offensive tackle Braden Brown. “He’s big, he’s physical, and he’s the best-blocking tight end on the team. There’s really not a lot of difference with how he’s able to block and how we are as offensive linemen.”
Then there’s Bryan Kariya. When the Cougars are faced with short-yardage situations, Kariya will likely be getting the football.
“Bryan doesn’t dance around, he just goes,” said running backs coach Joe DuPaix. “He’s very reliable and he runs downhill and he’s physical — he’s someone who can take a hit and keep going.”
With the offense virtually intact from a season ago, it’s an up-and-comer stud who will be making the biggest impact, and that player is Apo.
“He changes the game when he’s in there, he changes what we can do offensively when he’s in there,” said Heaps. “He can do things that other players can’t, he can really do it all. I have a very good connection with him, and I feel that he’ll have a breakout year this year.”