Harvey Unga is doing it again.
The former BYU running back, who is No. 2 in program history with 3,455 yards and 36 touchdowns, is making another impressive run — only this one doesn’t include the football.
“I love my room. The culture we have built in there is cool to see.” — BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga
Unga coaches a position group that has put Jamaal Williams (Saints), Ty’Son Williams (Cardinals), Tyler Allgeier (Falcons) and Chris Brooks (Dolphins) into the NFL and he has a new room full of optimists who want the same thing .
“I love my room. The culture we have built in there is cool to see,” Unga said on the “Y’s Guys” podcast. “A few of the guys we brought in had options to go to other places, but they repeated to me that, ‘I love the room. I love the guys you have in there and the feeling I got.’ That means a lot to me because as much as I love BYU and the program, the one thing I missed the most as a player was the running backs room and the guys that I was in there with.”
Unga played three full seasons at BYU (2007-09) and was the only player to exceed 1,000 rushing yards in each of them. He was the program’s all-time leader until Williams passed him in 2016, the year Unga joined Kalani Sitake’s staff as a grad assistant and later became the running backs coach in 2020. When Unga speaks, his players listen. When he recruits, he gets his guys. The room he is building for the Big 12 has grown deep in weaponry.
Unga on Aidan Robbins
Aidan Robbins is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound bulldozer, who played at UNLV and Louisville before portaling to Provo. He rushed for 1,011 yards and nine touchdowns last season for the Rebels.
“To be as tall as he is and as big as he is, he has really good feet,” Unga said. “He’s nimble and quick and deceivingly fast. He reminds me a lot of Jamaal Williams in the fact that he is a one cut, downhill type of guy. He has good vision and is very cerebral when it comes to understanding the offense.”
Robbins, who graduated from Louisville with a degree in business marketing before transferring to Las Vegas, caught 23 passes at UNLV for 125 yards and a touchdown. He has two years of eligibility to run and catch at BYU.
“He has pretty good hands,” Unga said. “He’s shifty enough that I believe he can make guys miss. I don’t think safeties are really excited to hit guys that are 230-plus pounds running at them.”
Unga on Dion Smith
A 6-foot, 210-pound transfer from Colorado, Dion Smith caught Unga’s attention by how different he was from Robbins.
“He is a change-of-pace guy,” Unga said. “He’s one of those guys you can put him in space. If we want him to run routes, he can run routes. If we want to have him out of the backfield doing stuff, he’s that kind of guy.”
Smith played in 34 games at Colorado and rushed for 653 yards and four touchdowns while battling through injuries. With his health restored, Smith is very much in Unga’s plans.
“He’s a speedster. He has some giddy-up to him. It’s fun to see that,” Unga said. “He’s very similar to Aidan in that he is super smart. In the short time we have had him, he has picked up the offense a lot faster than I anticipated.”
Unga on LJ Martin
The new kid in town is literally the new kid in town. Arriving in Provo with his parents late Tuesday, LJ Martin, a freshman from El Paso, brings Texas-sized plans to BYU.
“As far as athleticism goes, he’s pretty dang athletic,” Unga said. “He’s very smooth when he runs and he is big enough that if he needs to put his shoulder down and get a couple of yards, he can do it. He can catch out of the backfield as well.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound freshman rushed for 2,137 yards and 23 touchdowns last season and earned class 5A MVP honors at Canutillo High. Martin picked BYU over offers from Stanford, Texas Tech, and Baylor.
“He’s coming into a room with some depth and he’s coming in where some of these older guys have played at the highest level against some of the best competition and been productive at that,” Unga said. “But I’m excited for him. I’m eager to get my hands on him and see where we are at.”
Unga on Hinckley Ropati
Hinckley Ropati made most of his late-season opportunities last year to solidify himself as a weapon in Unga’s arsenal. The junior finished with 120 yards and a touchdown at Boise State and had a 43-yard touchdown run at Stanford.
“He did some amazing things,” Unga said. “He showed us that he has the ability to take the top off and go for the big yards and the big runs and make some home runs. He does a really good job in space. He understands how to set up his blocks and how to set up his runs in the open field.”
The 5-foot-10, 215-pound sophomore is also a candidate for kickoff returns.
Unga on Miles Davis
Miles Davis turned a lot of heads with his 131-yard rushing performance against Wyoming on Sept. 24, but injuries rerouted the 6-foot-2, 210-pound, converted receiver the rest of the season.
“I challenged him to get into the playbook,” Unga said. “He needs to understand what he’s doing so he doesn’t have to think. He can just get out there and let loose and do what he did against Wyoming and not look back. I just have to keep him healthy.”
Unga on Kedon Slovis
The grad-transfer quarterback from Pittsburgh/USC isn’t a member of the running backs room, but Unga believes Kedon Slovis will have a lot to say about how effective the ground attack is.
“He can sling it. I’ve seen a lot of good quarterbacks and he throws the ball as good as any of them,” Unga said. “For us as running backs, that helps a ton because if you can soften a defense by taking the top off and letting guys go, or even completing your intermediate routes, it definitely helps with the run game.”
Slovis has thrown for 9,973 career yards and 68 touchdowns against mostly Power Five defenses. Unga hopes his arm will free up the legs of his runners.
“His ability to do that will open some running lanes,” he said. “He’s athletic and he can move.”
Unga on Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams
Athletic and on the move best describes the tools of Jamaal Williams and Taysom Hill. They were both seniors when Unga cut his teeth at coaching as a grad assistant in 2016. For the first time in six years, the two former Cougars are back together as teammates in New Orleans.
“Those two are special,” he said. “To see them back on the same team again — how cool is that? I’m sure the chemistry is still there, and they haven’t missed a beat. Those two are great leaders. I don’t think people understand how important that is to a team, even in the NFL. When you have great leaders, it makes a world of difference. I didn’t have a doubt those two would be phenomenal NFL players.”
Unga on Tyler Allgeier
Convincing his head coach to move Tyler Allgeier back from linebacker to full-time running back for the 2020 season was among Unga’s most impressive moves — even if he deflects the accolades.
“I can’t take credit for that,” he said. “Honestly, Kalani was a big factor in that. He saw what I saw.”
Allgeier responded by rushing for 1,130 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2020 and he broke Luke Staley’s single season rushing record in 2021 with 1,601 yards and 23 touchdowns. Last season, as a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons, Allgeier rushed for 1.035 yards and three touchdowns.
Moving from defense to offense is a game changer for all involved.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get fired or not for having Tyler come over (to the offense),” Unga said with a laugh. “Kalani saw it from the get-go. I give credit to him.”
The Falcons should thank them both.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also the co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.