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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Brigham Young University running back Squally Canada poses for a photo at the school's indoor practice facility in Provo on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017.
I have a big board with everything written down with what I need to do to be successful as a person and as a player. I look at that board every day. —Squally Canada

Portland State (0-0) at BYU (0-0)

Saturday, 1 p.m. MDT LaVell Edwards Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

PROVO — Following BYU’s scrimmage a couple of weeks ago at LaVell Edwards Stadium, junior running back Squally Canada patiently answered a reporter’s questions.

But he was eager to get to a TV or a computer or a phone and watch some football.

That’s because his good friend and former teammate, Jamaal Williams, the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher, was about to make his debut with the NFL's Green Bay Packers in an exhibition game.

“He’s like a bigger brother to me,” said the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Canada, who regularly keeps in touch with Williams. “He always encourages me. From him, I learned patience, grit, toughness and the will to win.”

As BYU meets Portland State in the season opener Saturday (1 p.m. MDT, ESPN) Canada is looking to replace Williams as BYU’s No. 1 running back, though that’s no easy task. Williams rushed for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.

A year ago as a sophomore, Canada ran 73 times for 315 yards and two touchdowns. He’s looking to make a big impact in 2017.

“I have goals for myself but I don’t want to talk about that until after the season,” Canada said. “I have a big board with everything written down with what I need to do to be successful as a person and as a player. I look at that board every day.”

During the offseason, Canada has worked to become an all-around back who can run, block, pass protect and catch the ball — like Williams.

“I feel like I’ve been doing good,” he said. “I’ve definitely improved from last year. I’ve put on weight. I’m not nervous. Now when I get hit it’s like, ‘bring some more.’ I want to shout out to my O-line. Without them, none of it would be possible."

According to quarterback Tanner Mangum, Canada has improved, especially when it comes to catching passes out of the backfield.

It’s something he’s worked on,” Mangum said. “He’s put in the time.”

BYU coaches have repeatedly said for months that the running back position will be by committee this season and that there will not be a featured back. Canada, Riley Burt, KJ Hall, Trey Dye, Ula Tolutau and Kavika Fonua will each have a chance to contribute this season.

“I think we’re going to surprise people,” Canada said of the running backs.

Conventional wisdom says it’s going to take multiple backs to match what Williams did a year ago.

“Obviously, it’s hard to replace a guy like Jamaal Williams, who’s an every down back. He’s a workhorse,” Mangum said. “This year, it’s a little bit different. The goal is to never have a drop-off. It’s staying consistent and keeping the drives going regardless of who’s in there.”

Former BYU star Harvey Unga, who ranks No. 2 all-time in rushing in school history, is a graduate assistant. He believes that running backs coach Reno Mahe will help the Cougars get good production from the ground game this season.

“Each running back brings their own unique talent. Reno coaches them up and helps them understand the offense,” he said. “It’s tough to fill Jamaal’s shoes. It's a lot of pressure. He’s one of those once-in-a-decade kind of backs. Is there a guy that can be that guy? I think so. It’s just a matter of who really wants it.”

Unga has been impressed with what Canada showed during fall camp.

“There are things that Squally does, as far as running the ball, you can’t coach. Jamaal was great at that. There were things that he saw and did that were instinctive,” Unga said. “There are glimpses of that out of Squally. He’s the kind of kid where if you give him a task, he’s going to work hard and he’s going to do the best that he can and if it’s not good enough, he’s going to go above and beyond to try to make it good enough. That’s the good thing about Squally — he’s always going to work hard and give 110 percent. And you’ve got other guys that will compete with him and do the same thing. They’re pressing Squally. If he wants to be the guy, he’s got to find that little ‘it’ factor that’s going to separate him from the rest of the bunch. Right now, Squally’s doing a great job.”

Canada has made a lot of strides since his dubious BYU debut — in the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah in 2015. After not playing at all during the regular season, he fumbled the ball away on his first and only carry of that game.

He’s no longer haunted by that play.

“What bothers me now is when I miss touchdowns — when I make runs and miss a hole,” Canada said. “I feel like every time I touch the ball I want to take it to the house. That’s the mindset that I have.”

Unga has enjoyed watching Canada’s progress the past two years.

“He’s answered the questions of adversity well. His ball security is night and day. Tons better,” Unga said. “(Coach) Kalani (Sitake) has emphasized ball security. If you don’t have that you won’t see the field. Whatever happened in the past doesn’t matter anymore. I’m impressed with Squally's attitude. He was doing his own thing but now he’s matured a lot and realized that he’s working for the team more than anything.”