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Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU running back Lopini Katoa, left, takes a handoff from quarterback Joe Critchlow during the Cougars' first spring practice session in the Indoor Practice Facility on BYU's campus in Provo on Monday, March 4, 2019.

PROVO — Without many proven options vying for spots in the offensive backfield, BYU running backs coach AJ Steward has his work cut out for him as the team wraps up its first week of spring practices.

But despite the lack of collective experience, the second-year coach is optimistic about his group and likes what he's seen during the first few days of practice.

"We're young and hungry right now," Steward said. "But our group is coming to work every day wanting more, so I appreciate that as a coach. I don't have to coach effort and that's what you want. They're playing until the whistle, and that's more than I could ask for."

Steward's group has accounted for just 565 collective rushing yards at the collegiate level, with returning sophomore Lopini Katoa (6-foot-1, 209) having accounted for all but 141 of those yards. Perhaps the best news thus far for Steward's group is seeing Katoa take a full series of reps from the outset after ending the season on the sidelines with an injury and with some injury concerns persisting throughout the offseason.

"The main thing was just getting my knee healthy," Katoa said of what the focus has been over the past couple of months. "I wanted to get my knee strong and healthy so I could play in spring ball. … I feel good and I haven't had any problems with it so far."

" He looks very motivated and he's finishing every run and he knows his assignments. He's playing fast out there. "
BYU running backs coach AJ Steward, on Lopini Katoa

It's a good thing, too, as the offense in general is making do without several notable contributors for the next month. As could be imagined, Steward is grateful to have his most productive part fully participating.

"Even though he's a young player from a classification standpoint, he's a very seasoned player," Steward said. "Having that veteran presence out here and in the meeting rooms can work as an extension of me as a coach, and you definitely want that. It's great having him out there, obviously."

Those following Katoa's lead include Tyler Allgeier (5-11, 220) and Sione Finau (5-11, 180), who saw some time last year and were still allowed to redshirt due to the new NCAA rules.

Another somewhat notable option comes with the return of senior Kavika Fonua (6-0, 205), who has endured a rash of injuries since first serving notice as a freshman clear back in 2014. The Syracuse High product started his career in Provo playing at linebacker before switching to running back prior to the 2017 season, where he looked to see significant playing time before going down with an injury before working his way back throughout last season.

"Kavika is definitely a guy I look forward to seeing progress and get his feet back under him," Steward said. "He looks very motivated and he's finishing every run and he knows his assignments. He's playing fast out there."

The rest of the running backs consist of unproven walk-ons, although Morgan Pyper has been the one making an impact through the first few days of practices. Pyper is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman from Idaho Falls, who players and coaches readily note as someone who could make an impact.

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"He's a really hard worker," Katoa said of Pyper. "All offseason he's been pushing it and he's strong and really fast. So he's just really hungry. He had to earn a spot here, so he has that chip on his shoulder and it carries on to our practices."

Coaches have mentioned they're consistently watching the transfer portal in efforts to add to the relatively scant depth at running back, with some additions certainly possible by the time fall camp arrives. Until then, Steward plans to make his group as productive as possible.

"There's a lot to play out and we'll see how it develops, but like I said, I like the effort and I like the focus I've seen through the first few days," Steward concluded.