I worked my butt off to get on that kickoff team. I always wanted to be on it. (Ed) Lamb gave me a shot. I just had to make it happen. —Brayden El-Bakri
BYU (2-7) at Fresno State (5-3)
Saturday, 8:45 p.m. MDT Bulldog Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
PROVO — In an instant, out of the blue, BYU’s Brayden El-Bakri changed the complexion of a game, recorded perhaps the best highlight of the season, made a play that was needed for a team riding a seven-game losing streak and a play that will be remembered for a long time.
On a first-quarter kickoff in the opening minutes of BYU’s 41-20 victory over San Jose State last Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, El-Bakri sprinted down the field and leveled Spartan kick returner Rahshead Johnson, who fumbled.
El-Bakri made the ferocious — and legal — hit and recovered the ball all in one motion.
🎥: This Brayden El-Bakri forced fumble and recovery set up BYU's second TD and an early 14-0 lead over San Jose State pic.twitter.com/GWkPSUV3hR— Brandon Judd (@brandonljudd) October 28, 2017
“I didn’t even feel it, honestly,” recalled El-Bakri, a 6-foot, 240-pound walk-on junior who also plays fullback. “There are some times when you’re going so fast, you don’t feel anything.”
The way El-Bakri sees it, he was just doing his job on the special teams.
“Isn’t that what fullbacks are for? You never plan for something like that to happen,” he said. “You just try to make a play for your team.”
A few plays later, the Cougars capitalized on the fumble by scoring their second touchdown and taking a 14-0 lead with 9:34 left in the first quarter.
What was the impact of El-Bakri’s kickoff coverage takeaway?
“It’s a blue-collar work play. There’s a lot of plays that a receiver or a quarterback can make that require a skill level that not the whole sideline can relate to,” said special teams coach Ed Lamb. “But when a guy can run down on kickoff coverage and basically make a play on courage and passion, that’s something that everybody can relate to. Not only that, to have the opportunity to go from seven to 14 points deep in the red zone and still be (early) in the first quarter, for us that was a rarity. It got our sideline into the game in a way that it hadn’t been and the excitement spread throughout the team. I think we carried that momentum for quite a while.”
“You always need momentum and excitement,” El-Bakri said. “Whenever you can feel that literally rise on your team, it’s always a good thing because then everybody’s playing more loose, with less fear, with less stress. It helps open up everything else in the game plan.”
That electrifying play wouldn’t have happened without Kamel Greene, who performed a “twist” that allowed him to take out three would-be SJSU blockers.
“That’s why Brayden was so free on the play,” Lamb said. “What Brayden did well was, he did not flinch. He kept his eyes open all the way through contact and kept his face up. I don’t know if the runner saw him coming.”
El-Bakri is quick to give credit to Greene for allowing him to make the play.
“The twist worked perfect and I didn’t even get touched,” El-Bakri said. “I came free and (Johnson) never saw me.”
After the play, flags were thrown and it appeared that El-Bakri might be penalized and ejected. But after a review, the officials allowed the play to stand.
“I was really sad when I saw the flag,” El-Bakri said. “With the rule, you never know if the top of your head got him in the neck or head. I was scared. When they didn’t call it, I was just rejoicing.”
It wasn’t until fall camp that El-Bakri earned a spot on the kickoff coverage team.
“I worked my butt off to get on that kickoff team,” he said. “I always wanted to be on it. Lamb gave me a shot. I just had to make it happen. I wasn’t on it in the spring or the beginning of fall camp. I slowly got put in more and more.”
Though he's not on scholarship, El-Bakri shows how much he loves the game every week.
“The dream is to play. The real currency of football is playing time. I feel like I’ve been rewarded with that fairly well this year,” El-Bakri said. “It’s been a terrible year as a team but I feel like we’re close to turning it around. It’s frustrating to lose. But it’s been fun to be able to play a sport that I’m passionate about.”
Aside from El-Bakri's impact on special teams, offensive coordinator Ty Detmer is glad to have him as a fullback.
“He’s a guy that plays with a lot of pride and passion,” Detmer said. “He brings that to the offensive side, too, whatever he’s asked to do. He brings that work ethic with him every play. He’s a guy you love to coach.”