Jaren Wilkey, BYU
BYU running back Zach Katoa carries the ball during spring practice Thursday, March 15, 2018.
He just plays hard every play. His energy is great; he’s a great leader by example. He does everything you ask him to do. He plays at full speed, and, even if he makes a mistake, he does it at a hundred miles an hour. I like that about him. —BYU first-year running backs coach AJ Steward, on Zach Katoa

PROVO — At about the time BYU’s ill-fated 2017 football season kicked off, running back Zach Katoa returned home from his LDS Church mission to Independence, Missouri.

The freshman out of American Fork High arrived in Provo and assumed his spot on the scout team offense, which prepares the starting Cougar defense by simulating the upcoming opponents’ plays.

“It was good to get a feel for what it’s like at the next level,” Katoa said Monday about his experience on the scout team. “It was great, getting my feet back under me after my mission. I learned a ton playing against the starting defense every practice.”

“When he got back from his mission, it was a couple of days before school started," coach Kalani Sitake recalled. "We just wanted him to be part of the offseason conditioning program and we wanted to redshirt him."

The Cougar offense struggled to find consistency in the run game while the running back group was hampered by injuries throughout the season.

Meanwhile, as the dismal campaign unfolded, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Katoa emerged as a scout team star. And players on the BYU defense took notice.

In fact, Sitake said Monday that at midseason, team captains, including standout linebacker Fred Warner, told the coaching staff, “Hey, we’ve got to play this guy. He’s one of our best players.”

“We thought about it and just thought it would be better for him to start in January and complete his redshirt year,” Sitake said. “It’s been really good for him. He’s progressed a lot further than a lot of returned missionaries have. He’s done a great job."

If spring ball an indication, Katoa could be a major contributor this fall. He’s shown to be a strong, elusive runner and a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

Katoa, who rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at American Fork in 2014, originally signed with Oregon State, when Sitake was the defensive coordinator there, before enrolling at BYU.

What are Sitake’s impressions of Katoa?

“Well, I recruited the kid, so probably it’s a good one,” he joked. “He handles his business in the classroom and does well off the field. He does a great job on the field.”

Katoa feels comfortable in the new offense implemented by first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.

“Last year, I didn’t learn the offense because I was running other teams’ offenses,” he said. “It’s not super different but it’s definitely a high standard. A lot of attention to detail, which is making us better players. Little things matter a lot I realize at this level.”

As for his role in the BYU offense, Katoa said, “I just want to work and fit in wherever the coaches feel is best for me. We have a lot of great players on our offense right now and I just want to be able to contribute the best I can.”

First-year running backs coach AJ Steward likes what he sees from Katoa.

“He’s doing a really good job. He just plays hard every play. His energy is great; he’s a great leader by example,” he said. “He does everything you ask him to do. He plays at full speed, and, even if he makes a mistake, he does it at a hundred miles an hour. I like that about him.”

Katoa said he is focused on improving every day.

“I’m willing to work and learn. There’s a lot to work on and learn. It’s getting my reads right, footwork, just being able to play and not thinking about the things I need to do right," he explained. "I love playing. I bring a lot of passion and I try to make the guys around me better. I try to be selfless and make sure that even if I’m not getting the ball I try to do my best away from the ball.”

Last season, BYU ranked No. 104 nationally in rushing.

Squally Canada rushed 120 times for a team-high 710 yards and six touchdowns. Ula Tolutau, who is dealing with an injury and has been limited during the spring, gained 303 yards and two touchdowns in seven games. Austin Kafentzis had 41 carries for 235 yards.

During spring, Riley Burt, Kavika Fonua and Kyle Griffitts are also in the running back mix, while KJ Hall is out as he recovers from knee surgery.

Two weeks into spring practices, Katoa is confident about the potential of the offense.

“I’ve seen great things. I’ve seen us come a long ways in a short period of time,” he said. “It’s exciting, too, because I see there’s so much more that we can do better. There’s a lot of upside. We have a lot to improve on but there’s already great things happening. It’s looking pretty good.”