He’s had a season of highlights on kickoff cover tackles. —BYU special teams cordinator Ed Lamb
And a walk-on may lead them.
Brayden El-Bakri has unofficially become the poster boy for BYU’s November finish, which begins on the road at Fresno State this Saturday. If not in a physical sense, he may do so emotionally.
El-Bakri is one of those guys whose primary goal in football is to play for BYU — at any price. He doesn’t have that yearly stipend that scholarship athletes have, checks that total in the thousands of dollars. He doesn’t have his tuition, books, fees and lodging paid for under the shade of a scholarship.
He’s suffered the losses alongside the scholarship players, and his pain was just as deep through a seven-game losing streak. A week ago, he told reporters gathered at the football offices that he was sick of losing. Just sick of it.
BYU defeated San Jose State on Saturday 41-20 to break the losing streak. But what arose from that victory was little more than a mark in the win column.
It isn’t enough that El-Bakri plays fullback, the lead blocker on offense. On special teams, he is often the first man down the field to make a hit, take on a blocker, bust up protection or get to the kickoff man.
It’s blue-collar work. He’s good and consistent at it.
With 10:43 left in the first quarter Saturday, El-Bakri raced downfield, found himself unblocked on a kickoff and zeroed in on SJSU return man Rahshead Johnson. It just so happened Johnson was trying to read his blockers and lost sight of the freight train coming his way. El-Bakri hit Johnson in full stride so hard it lifted him off the ground with such force that Johnson could not hang onto the ball, and it popped up like a grape seed under duress.
But that wasn’t all. El-Bakri, in what looked like one continuous choreographed motion, sighted in the loose football and pounced on it at the 11.
In fast motion, it looked like targeting. But, when slowed down and reviewed, El-Bakri made a textbook hit into Johnson’s shoulder pads with his face mask. It was a matter of physics, velocity versus resistance, plus volume and motion.
After that El-Bakri hit, Tanner Mangum threw an 11-yard touchdown to Matt Bushman to put the Cougars up 14-0. That edge gave the Cougars a platform they hadn’t had since August or the Utah State game — to play with a lead, more relaxed, more fun.
The El-Bakri hit just may be the highlight video of this football season. It just may inspire the team to prepare harder and fight with more gusto to finish this season with some wins.
To set the scene of why the El-Bakri hit is a symbolic eraser, consider:
In that game, BYU’s defense lost its best player, linebacker Fred Warner (ankle) for a yet to be determined time. Linebacker Grant Jones was hauled off the field in a golf cart. The defense had already lost corner Troy Warner (foot) and Matt Hadley (knee) for the season. On that defense, tackles Khyiris Tonga and Handsome Tanielu wore braces on their arms.
On the offense, game star KJ Hall, fighting injuries all season, turned in a spectacular game before missing most the half with a shoulder injury. The leading rusher on the season, Ula Tolutau, was absent after being ticketed for possession of a banned substance and running back Trey Dye was out with an ankle injury.
El-Bakri became a ball carrier in the second half and dragged two or three SJSU tacklers about seven yards on one carry to keep a drive alive.
No other way to put it.
Special teams and assistant head coach Ed Lamb on Monday said El-Bakri’s violent play wasn’t a “hit” but a “tackle” executed perfectly, textbook as drawn up and practiced.
Fortunately, Johnson walked away from the play, making it even better.
November is a time in football where every team has injured and bruised players. BYU is certainly no different, if not more so.
But here comes this play, this hit, the turnover, and recovery by a guy whose engine is still hitting the red line. And this guy is kind of pulling the rest of his team with him.
Momentum in football is a fleeting thing. It is hard to gain, just as tough to maintain. But plays like the one El-Bakri delivered are tangible things that can be used as ignition fuel.
It remains to be seen if Saturday’s win over SJSU is a turn in momentum for Kalani Sitake. But remnants of that game, in the form of El-Bakri’s highlight, could be a catalyst.
“He’s had a season of highlights on kickoff cover tackles,” said Lamb.
Well, ride that highlight reel.
Never too late.