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Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU coach Kalani Sitake talks to the team following the Cougars' practice in the Indoor Practice Facility on Thursday, March 15, 2018 in Provo.

PROVO — Will Kalani Sitake’s staff have a surprise running back to sign next week when BYU goes through the second segment of signing day for the class of 2019?

Will a running back come to Provo through the new NCAA transfer portal or will BYU sign a high school prospect? Or will running back coach AJ Steward work with his returning athletes and wait for former Lone Peak sprinter Jackson McChesney to get back in shape after returning from missionary service later this year?

Tulsa, Oklahoma, prepster Thomas Grayson, whom the Cougars have had a bead on, will trip this weekend to Kansas State. Other possibilities include Christian Grubb (Notre Dame High, Sherman Oaks, California) or Emmanuel Esukpa, a portal prospect leaving Rice.

Does an RB search undervalue the talents of current roster player Lopini Katoa?

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes could use another Jamaal Williams. At the same time, graduating Squally Canada claimed on BYUtv Monday that Katoa is ready to take off under Grimes' system.

" To me, this is the way I understand it about Kalani. He knows he is not going to get all the Poly kids to BYU. I think he likes to take two- and three-star kids who really want to go to BYU and develop them. He will take those kids over four- or five-star players who really don’t want to go to BYU. "
Petelo Hifo, father of BYU receiver Aleva Hifo

Williams, now a Green Bay Packers running back, finished his collegiate career as the school’s all-time leading rusher. Williams did so despite issues with the school’s honor code for a season. Still, Williams overcame those challenges unique to BYU and remains one of BYU’s favorite players of all time.

His mother, Nicolle Thompson-Williams, remains a steadfast recruiter for BYU’s football program for anyone who will listen. The Fontana, California, resident was recently asked by ESPN 960 host Ben Criddle what works as a BYU recruiting pitch now that she’s witnessed what Jamaal has gone through.

She listed three things: Preparation for life beyond football through BYU’s curriculum; playing an independent schedule that takes players from coast to coast, and ESPN exposure that enables friends and family to watch practically every game.

Those items have to be part of Steward’s pitch.

“I’d tell parents they need to look at life after football for their son,” Williams told Criddle. “BYU is always ranked in the top five nationally and I’d look closely at what they have to offer. Education should come first.

“As an independent, they get to play everybody, so they’re not just playing the same teams. Jamaal gets bored easy and it was a real thrill for him to know he would always play somebody different and not the same people because you know, you can become slack being in a conference.

“I think ESPN is a big deal," she continued. "I have a girlfriend whose son plays for Oregon and if you don’t have a Pac-12 Network channel, you can’t watch him play. So, it’s like OK, I get to watch BYU play anytime I want on ESPN or BYUtv so I never had that problem. A lot of people aren’t able to follow their son to all the games, so not being able to go to the game or see him on TV is the ultimate letdown to me. I think exposure is like the No. 1 thing.”

If BYU can’t use that to its advantage, it would be a shame.

The state of Utah is producing an ever-increasing number of football players who are opting to leave the state and go to other Pac-12 schools, the SEC and Big Ten. BYU isn’t the only one impacted by this phenomenon of late; so is Utah.

Some of these guys simply want to leave home and believe the college life and experience at USC, Oregon or UCLA will bring more of the football experience they desire. For others, parents get bowled over by the attention parade.

I spoke to a high school coach this past week who works with a highly recruited Div. I prospect very familiar with the Cougars and who is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When this coach pressed the athlete about his interest in BYU, he simply said he didn’t want to deal with the honor code.

That is another challenge for Steward and other recruiters and it isn’t going away with increased exposure and playing a BYU schedule with Tennessee, Washington and USC.

This has to force Sitake’s staff to put a higher emphasis on a preferred walk-on program, going after athletes who could get scholarships at Group of Five programs but choose to attend the Provo school. This is now “a thing” for this staff. This is why Bailey Sulzer, a 2019 RB/LB from West Valley in Cottonwood, California, was given preferred walk-on status after a church mission to Oregon.

In another conversation about recruiting, I asked Petelo Hifo, father of receiver Aleva Hifo and a surrogate father, coach, relative and advisor to linebacker Sione Takitaki, if Sitake is a less effective recruiter now at BYU than he was at Utah or Oregon State.

Petelo, who lives and has coaches in a hotbed of talent in Southern California, said Sitake remains an effective salesman at BYU; he can evaluate talent and get in the door. What’s happened is, he is finding there is success and then there is success. And success may not be measured by getting a ton of four-star recruits.

“He’s still got it,” said Hifo.

“To me, this is the way I understand it about Kalani. He knows he is not going to get all the Poly kids to BYU. I think he likes to take two- and three-star kids who really want to go to BYU and develop them. He will take those kids over four- or five-star players who really don’t want to go to BYU. As a coach, I’ve seen this work when I’ve taken a kid who wasn’t a four- or five-star and developed them into a successful player.”

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Former NFL/BYU tight ends Chad Lewis and Dennis Pitta would fit into this category. Both were initial walk-ons at BYU. Takitaki was a three-star recruit.

Right now, a few names BYU is expected to go with next year include returners Katoa, Tyler Allgeier, Sione Finau, Kavika Fonua and Kyle Griffitts.

Remember, this is a team that won a bowl game using fourth-string roster talent when running back Matt Hadley, a converted linebacker, was injured in the regular-season finale at Utah.

This is where spring football begins. And it will be without Riley Burt, who put his name in the transfer portal to find more playing time.