PROVO — Austin Kafentzis has the speed, a four-star recruit résumé backed by ridiculously gaudy high school numbers, and enough experience as a college transfer nomad to scream out he is due for a break.
That’s the situation the most decorated high school quarterback in Utah history finds himself in during BYU spring practices. He is no longer in the quarterback room. He is now a regular face in running backs coach AJ Steward’s meetings after his 2017 season. That was a campaign in which he was used as a scout team quarterback and also used to run out of the wildcat formation before switching to running back in the closing games of BYU's four-win season.
Believe it or not, this is Kafentzis’ first BYU spring practice. A year ago, after transferring from Arizona Western following a stop at Nevada, where he landed after leaving Wisconsin, he was injured in late spring and unable to do much.
Now Kafentzis is healthy, hungry and ready to do anything BYU’s coaching staff asks him to do.
A key to it all is his attitude. Kafentzis is humble. He works hard as an ox. He has a gracious attitude and team-oriented demeanor. It isn’t what you’d expect from a multi-transfer player who once threw and ran for more than 20,000 yards and scored 218 touchdowns at Jordan High.
Back then he seemingly had the world in the palm of his hand when Gary Andersen signed him to be a Big Ten Badger.
Spring? Uncertainty? Kafentzis will take it.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” he said this week. “I like the coaching change, I like the practices. They’re being run way different. I did like things about last year but this year I like how the smallest details count and matter and that’s everything from the snap of the ball to the cadence to lining up with a sense of urgency.
"Everything is fast-paced, you have to run in-between drills. I like the way practices are being run and the mentality. It’s looking pretty good.”
Steward is throwing reps at Kafentzis as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield. In offensive coordinator Jeff Grime’s schemes, he’s asking backs to be prepared to catch the ball, forcing defenders to cover them at all times.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see Kafentzis being Grimes’ version of Matt Bellini. For those who remember Bellini, he broke Phil Odle’s all-time receiving record coming out of the backfield running curls and slants against linebackers for Ty Detmer. He was as effective of an RB receiver as the Cougars have ever produced. And Kafentzis is more athletic than Bellini.
Kafentzis is too young to know much about Bellini. He just wants to be counted upon.
“They haven’t told me what role I have. Whatever they throw at me, I’ll accept. I’m just in the room trying to learn all I can. I think they are switching guys in and out and if they have something specific in mind, I haven’t heard about it yet.”
“That’s crazy. Maybe that’s the role they want for me, I don’t know, but if they want me to run through a brick wall for them, I’ll do it.”
Can he catch like a receiver but do it as a running back?
“I’m trying to. As a quarterback, you are playing with balls all the time, so I’m used to it. The hand-eye coordination should be good. I’m just working on running the right routes and not thinking too much and just letting everything fall into place.”
Kafentzis’ journey is one of the most interesting in BYU’s camp.
“There’s a lot being thrown at me right now. I switched in the middle of the year. I was in the QB room before and now I’m in with the running backs, something that happened the last couple of games last year.
“I started late so this is my first spring being in a different drill work setting. I think I’m listening to coach Steward and handling it well, but I’m far from where I need to be or want to be.
“I think as a group we are moving forward and progressing very well," he continued. "Our offensive line is giving us huge holes. I feel like we can get four yards every play because our offensive line is giving a big push at the line of scrimmage. When you are running behind those big guys it helps a ton. There are a lot of details I need to work on. I have to take them to heart and get them down.”
Steward, who coached at Rice University after a playing career at Kansas, is a guy Kafentzis can relate to.
Said Kafentzis. “He was actually a quarterback coming into college and then switched over to receiver and tight end, so we kind of have that connection. He is a young guy but really focused and determined to be the greatest running back coach in the country.
"He comes in every day, whether it’s meetings or practices, with a sense of urgency and fire and gets us going. We always have good talks with him and he shows us how we can get better on every play and do it right. He’s really behind us.”
Kafentzis likes Steward’s handouts. It’s a sheet of paper with highlighted tasks to concentrate on that day.22 comments on this story
“He’s a very focused man. You can tell how he handles little details. He comes in and brings us a paper with a list of things that are highlighted," Kafentzis said. "It’s not wordy, just a couple of simple words to focus on, whether it is blocking or to hit our run points. He is very detail oriented.”
Back in high school, two separate guys with stopwatches timed Kafentzis at 4.41 in the 40-yard dash. He had the second-fastest 10-yard burst on Wisconsin’s team when he was in the Badger program. He’s looking forward to his first test numbers as a Cougar later this spring.
But none of that matters unless he finds a way to convince folks to put it all to use.
That’s his goal. And for those who know him, he’s going about it the right way — with a great attitude and hard work.