PROVO — Once again, BYU’s Matt Hadley has changed positions and he’s competing for the starting job at running back.
More importantly, Hadley’s just happy to be playing again.
The 6-foot, 210-pound, 24-year-old senior from Connell, Washington, has played both safety and linebacker during his career with the Cougars, which began in 2012.
Hadley entered last season as a senior before suffering a broken kneecap in practice just days after last year’s season-opener. He ended up playing in four more games at linebacker before undergoing season-ending surgery.
“It was a pretty painful experience,” Hadley recalled.
As for the surgery, “They had to remove the piece that had broken off of my kneecap and then reattach some of my patellar tendon back up to my kneecap," Hadley said. "That was the procedure. The recovery is still in process. Still one of those things you have to strengthen and work on.”
Then came the long, time-consuming process of applying for a medical hardship waiver to the NCAA so he could regain his senior year.
During that appeal process, Hadley wondered if his football career was over.
“There was a time, especially at the beginning of this year, as the months after the submission was going on, it was tough to know,” he said. “It was just really tough to know. I felt like, ‘Man, there’s a good chance I might not get this.’”
BYU officials and staff members helped Hadley with his quest to get another year of eligibility, which was finally granted.
“Thankfully, we had a lot of people put in a lot of hard work for me to be able to come back,” Hadley said. “I’m grateful to all of them.”
Linebackers coach Ed Lamb, who has coached Hadley at both linebacker and safety, was one of those who was thrilled to see Hadley return for another season.
“In coaching him at the safety position and then with the linebackers, I became close with him and his wife,” Lamb said. “To see him go through that uncertainty of not knowing whether he’d play and then, of course, the excitement of finding out the good news, I rode that roller coaster with him.”
After spring practices, Hadley was listed as a backup at all three linebacker positions. Then the coaches approached Hadley about switching positions — to running back — for this season.
“I said it in a staff meeting — I feel like Matt at running back makes our team better,” Lamb said. “It wasn’t as much of a sacrifice at linebacker as it was consideration of what makes the team better. It was looking like, at the time, that we would have two or three promising running backs. Two or three is not enough at the running back position. I think Matt is a legitimate, serious contender to be in the first group of running backs.”
Hadley, who is also listed as a linebacker, hopes to add depth to the running back group, which features Squally Canada, Zach Katoa, Beau Hoge (who moved from quarterback to running back) and Riley Burt, among others.
Not that Hadley is a stranger to the position.
In the spring of 2017, he took reps as a running back. And in high school, Hadley rushed for 2,516 yards and a state-record 47 touchdowns as a junior at Washington's Connell High. He finished his prep career with 6,881 rushing yards and a state-record 746 points.
“I still think that’s more of his natural position. If you watch his film in high school … what I did when I first got here I was really impressed with his running ability,” coach Kalani Sitake said of Hadley. “I know he’s a senior but we need more than just one running back. We have to use more guys than one or two. Obviously, you’re going to have a starter. Right now, he’s competing for the starting spot. We’ll see how it goes. But that’s more where he fits. He’s so smart that he can move over the defense right now and be just fine.”
While running back is a position he is very familiar with, it’s been a long time since he’s taken handoffs during a game.6 comments on this story
“I played it in high school. That’s been a while,” Hadley said. “(Running backs) coach AJ (Steward) and (graduate assistant and former BYU star) Harvey (Unga) and I have talked. They’ve been super encouraging. All the running backs have been helping me try to find that rhythm I might have had one day in the past. That’s been the biggest thing.”
For now, Hadley is just grateful for a second chance at a senior year.
“I’m excited. This is an amazing staff and an amazing group of guys,” he said. “It’s a privilege for me to be able to come back and work hard with them again and make the most out of this season.”