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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars running back Michael Alisa (42) runs the ball as Brigham Young University football players open fall camp in Provo Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012.

PROVO — There was a time, not long ago, when BYU's Michael Alisa told people — including some in the program — that he wanted to be a running back. And they thought he was crazy.

But Alisa dreamed of being a running back, and he never let go of his dream.

Now, the dream has come true. Alisa is not only the Cougars' starting running back, he's expected to be the featured back in BYU's offense this season, which starts Thursday (8:15 p.m. MT, ESPN) against Washington State.

"I would suspect he would have at least 20 carries in the game on Thursday," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "Hopefully he'll play great for us and merit those carries."

When Alisa arrived at BYU in 2008, he discovered a full cupboard of running backs on the roster, including Harvey Unga, who would become the school's all-time leading rusher.

"There were a couple of linebackers who were out with injuries, so I had a chance to play immediately at linebacker," said the 6-foot-1, 213-pound junior. "I was going to be second string without any competition. I did that and got a lot of playing time as a freshman."

But when he returned from a mission, he decided he wanted to run the football. So he met with head coach Bronco Mendenhall and expressed his desire.

"It was something I had wanted to do for a long time. Ever since I was a little kid, running the football has been my love," Alisa said. "There's a rush that I get when I carry the ball. I told him that, 'If you move me to running back, I might not be the best running back, but I'll be a better running back than a linebacker because it's something I love because I'm passionate about it.' "

His decision to switch positions puzzled a lot of people, Alisa recalled, including outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga.

"Coach Poppinga told me I was crazy," Alisa said. "He said, 'You played at linebacker as a freshman. Why would you not continue that great career at linebacker?' "

Even after changing positions, it took awhile for Alisa to establish himself.

"I made the move and they moved me to fullback," Alisa said. "I was like third-string fullback. I went from potential starter at linebacker to third-string fullback. Not even a ball-carrier ?— a blocker. Everyone was telling me I was crazy. But I stuck with it and kept working. There was a lot of frustration."

To get through that frustration, Alisa talked a lot to his brothers, as well as Unga.

"Harvey told me to keep my head up and keep working and things would work out," Alisa said. "Eventually, they did. They moved me to tailback. I kept working hard in practice, I kept turning the coaches' heads and eventually got some opportunities in a game."

That first big opportunity came against San Jose State. Alisa rushed 16 times for 91 yards against the Spartans. For the season, he gained 455 yards on 85 carries, highlighted by a 99-yard performance against Idaho.

While Alisa was sidelined for the Armed Forces Bowl due to an ankle injury, he said he's back to 100 percent now.

Alisa is confident in his abilities, as well as the offensive line that will be blocking in front of him.

"It starts with our offensive line. Our offensive linemen are a lot more athletic and lean than they were last year as a whole and a lot more assignment-sound," Alisa said. "We've been coached to run downhill, so that's going to pick up a lot more yards than we did last year. The wide receivers are better at blocking. And the pass game, looking the way it is, will open up the run game.

"It looks like we'll have a good running game this year. I'll help out as much as I can. But we have a good running back corps, a lot of guys that can contribute."

During his BYU career, Alisa has spent time seeking advice from such former Cougar running backs as Unga and Fui Vakapuna.

"Harvey's a mentor to me. He's been invaluable to my career," Alisa said. "The same goes with Fui. I talk to both of those guys about football and what they think, from how to run to how to handle pressure off the field to whether or not to add more weight. They've been giving me tips and pointers all throughout my career and it's been helpful.

"I look up to those guys so much, not only for what they've done here as football players, but how they treat me off the field and the good friends that they are."

Alisa has realized his dream. And nobody thinks he is crazy for wanting to be a running back anymore.

Cougars on the air

Washington State (0-0)

at BYU (0-0)

Thursday, 8:15 p.m. MT

LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

email: jeffc@desnews.com