Ranking the best running backs in BYU history

By: Jay Yeomans

Published: July 10, 2018

It has been more than three years since I last ranked the top running backs at BYU, and enough has changed since then that it is time to update my list.

Now I know that many of you will dispute the top of these rankings, but that’s okay. We all see things just a little differently and that’s what makes lists like this fun.

With that being said, here is my updated list of the best running backs in BYU history. If your rankings are different from mine, hit me up in the comments section with how you think it should look.

15. Brian McKenzie (1996-97)

McKenzie was a monster on the gridiron during both his seasons on the field in Provo. He led the team in rushing and hit the double figure mark in touchdowns each season. His most productive season came as a senior in 1997 when he totaled 218 carries for 1,004 yards and 12 touchdowns while adding 15 receptions for 123 yards.

For his BYU career, he carried the ball 385 times for 1,954 yards and 23 touchdowns to go along with 23 catches for 212 yards.

14. Naufahu Tahi (1999, 2002-05)

Tahi was one of the best blocking fullbacks that the Cougars have ever produced. He didn’t put up big numbers, but he was a massive reason why Curtis Brown and the BYU offense was so success. His best statistical campaign came as a senior in 2005 when he had 97 carries for 497 yards and six touchdowns. He also manged 41 catches for 375 yards and another score.

For his BYU career, he carried the ball 326 times for 1,358 yards and 14 touchdowns to go along with 81 receptions for 730 yards and five scores.

13. Weldon Jackson (1956-58)

While his numbers aren’t massive, what Jackson did in the context of when he played was enough to prove that he was a great back at BYU. His best season came as a senior in 1958 when he finished third in the nation with 6.9 yards per carry and seventh in rushing yards. That year, he carried the ball 101 times for 698 yards and six touchdowns.

For his BYU career, he had 292 carries for 1,449 yards and nine touchdowns to go along with 14 receptions for 81 yards.

12. Casey Tiumalu (1982-83)

Tiumalu might not be the most recognizable name to BYU fans, but he was a great back during his two seasons. His most productive year came as a senior in 1983 when he finished eighth in the nation in yards from scrimmage with 1,434 and was named first-team All-WAC. That year, he carried the ball 139 times for 851 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 60 catches for 583 yards and three more scores.

For his BYU career, he had 249 carries for 1,516 yards and 11 touchdowns. He added 80 receptions for 766 yards and five scores.

11. Ronney Jenkins (1996-98)

Even though Jenkins played just two seasons before he left, he is one of the best backs the Cougars have ever seen. His best season came as a junior when he led the WAC in rushing yards as well as yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. That year, he carried the ball 252 times for 1,307 yards and 13 touchdowns while adding 34 receptions for 349 yards and two more scores.

For his BYU career, he had 380 carries for 2040 yards and 24 touchdowns to go along with 48 receptions for 538 yards and five scores.

10. Matt Bellini (1986-1990)

While he wasn’t used as a traditional running back, Bellini made some huge contributions coming out of the backfield as a Cougar. He finish on the All-WAC first or second-team his last three years on campus and earned honorable mention All-American honors multiple seasons. His most productive season came as a sophomore in 1988 when he carried the ball 98 times for 488 yards and seven touchdowns as well as catching 51 passes for 786 yards and four more scores.

For his BYU career, he had 214 carries for 931 yards and 14 touchdowns to go along with a then BYU record 204 receptions for 2,635 yards and 15 scores.

9. John Ogden (1964-66)

Ogden did some amazing things during his three seasons on the field at BYU. He led the WAC in rushing yards for three consecutive years and earned first-team All-WAC during his junior and senior seasons. His most productive year came as a senior in 1966 when he carried the ball 204 times for 906 yards and four touchdowns.

For his BYU career, he had 535 carries for 2,376 yards and 11 touchdowns to go along with two receptions for 30 yards and a score.

8. Jeff Blanc (1973-76)

Blanc was the first great dual-threat back the Cougars had. He earned first-team All-WAC in his last two seasons and finished as the BYU career leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. His most productive campaign came as a sophomore in 1974 when he carried the ball 199 times for 784 yards and six touchdowns while catching 32 passes for 442 yards and four more scores.

For his BYU career, he had 625 carries for 2,718 yards and 21 touchdowns to go along with 74 receptions for 886 yards and eight scores.

7. Lakei Heimuli (1983-86)

Another one of the impressive dual-threat backs, Heimuli was first-team All-WAC in his last two seasons and left BYU as one of the leading rushers in school history. His most productive season came as a junior in 1985 when he finished sixth in the nation in rushing touchdowns and ninth in receptions. That year, he carried the ball 188 times for 857 yards and 14 touchdowns while catching 66 passes for 459 yards.

For his BYU career, he had 605 carries for 2,710 yards and 30 touchdowns to go along with 139 receptions for 1,123 yards and two scores.

6. Pete Van Valkenburg (1969-1972)

After two solid years, Van Valkenburg gave BYU one of the most special seasons by a back in school history as a senior in 1972. That year, he led the nation in rushing with 1,386 yards to go along with 12 touchdowns even though he wasn’t even in the top 10 in carries. He also finished second in yards from scrimmage to earn first-team All-WAC and AP third-team All-American.

For his BYU career, he carried the ball 456 times for 2,392 yards and 24 touchdowns to go along with 25 catches for 280 yards and two scores.

5. Jamal Willis (1991-94)

Willis had two great years during his time as a Cougar. He was the first BYU back to cross the 1,000-yard plateau on two occasions and finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. His best season came as a senior in 1994 when he earned first-team All-WAC and finished in the top 10 in the nation in yards and touchdowns from scrimmage. That year, he carried the ball 204 times for 1042 yards and 12 touchdowns as well as catching 33 passes for 525 yards and two more scores.

For his BYU career, he had 594 carries for 2,970 yards and 35 touchdowns to go along with 77 catches for 1,095 yards and five scores.

4. Curtis Brown (2002-06)

Brown was a do everything back during his time in Provo. He was the first player to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and earned first-team All-MWC twice. His most productive season came as a junior in 2005 when he rushed for 1,123 yards and 14 touchdowns while catching 53 passes for 454 yards and two more scores.

He finished his BYU career, with 641 carries for 3,221 yards and 31 touchdowns to go along with 157 catches for 1,309 yards and five scores.

3. Jamaal Williams (2012-14, 16)

Williams was one of the most dynamic backs that the Cougars have ever produced. He was strong enough to fight for the tough yards, but also had enough speed that he could break off the big run. His most impressive year came as a senior in 2016 when he put up 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns on 234 carries.

In his four seasons on the field in Provo, he finished with 726 carries for a school-record 3,901 and 35 touchdowns. He also registered 60 catches for 567 yards and an additional score.

2. Harvey Unga (2006-2009)

Unga was just a beast during his three seasons on the field in a BYU uniform. He won MWC freshman of the year, was second-team All-MWC as a sophomore and first-team All-MWC as a junior. His most productive statistical season came as a freshman in 2007 when he carried the ball 244 times for 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns while catching 44 passes for 655 yards and four more scores.

For his BYU career, he carried the ball 696 times for a then school-record 3,455 yards and 36 touchdowns to go along with 102 catches for 1,085 yards and nine scores.

1. Luke Staley (1999-2001)

Staley did three things at BYU that set him apart from all other running backs. He won the MWC offensive player of the year award, was a consensus first-team All-American and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s most outstanding running back. All of those honors came as a junior in 2001 when he lead the nation in rushing touchdowns (24) and touchdowns from scrimmage (28). He also finished second nationally in rushing yards (1,596), yards per carry (8.1) and yards from scrimmage (1,930).

For his BYU career, he registered 418 carries for 2,507 yards and 41 touchdowns to go along with 86 catches for 1,000 yards and seven scores. His 48 touchdowns are still a school record.

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15 comments

  1. I’m puzzled that you left out Eldon Fortie, the great single wing tailback whose jersey was retired at BYU. He was a second team All-American, 10th in the Heisman voting in 1962, and until 2016, held the single game rushing record at BYU. And he didn’t even make your top 15? You need to be more careful in composing these lists, perhaps.

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    1. Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate your comments. From my understanding, Fortie was a quarterback. An elite running quarterback in a system that ran the ball a lot. Which is why he put up amazing numbers. He is included in my rankings of the top running quarterbacks in school history and also my top overall players list.

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  2. Jmoney and Elwin, you’re both incorrect on Fortie. He was never a QB, because the single wing offense has no QB. All backs in that offense are running backs, though the tailback is usually the one who throws the pass when a pass is called for. In 1962, only BYU and Princeton still ran the single wing. During 1963, BYU converted over to the T formation, which did have a QB, but Fortie was a senior in 1962. The backfield positions in the single wing are tailback, fullback, wingback and blocking back. If you’ve read otherwise, your sources are wrong. But in 1962, there were still two college teams in America who hadn’t converted over to offenses which included quarterbacks. Fortie didn’t line up under center, ever. He was the back farthest back in the backfield, and he didn’t stand up like shotgun quarterbacks do. He was down in a stance, but with neither hand on the ground. In fact, one of the reasons LaVell Edwards was hired was because he, like my father, BYU head coach Hal Mitchell, was running the single wing at Granite High.

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    1. Yes, and the Cougar Club is wrong. A little research by them, and those who did the rankings, would have made that clear. He was never listed as a quarterback by anyone at the time he was playing, simply because he wasn’t a QB. In 1962, the Cougar Club didn’t exist, so their ideas are based on retrospective suppositions, not on any records they kept. But I understand the website’s desire to not have to revise their rankings. Bournesupremacy’s position I don’t understand, though. My dad was the head coach of Fortie’s team, had played at UCLA under Red Sanders when they ran the single wing, and that’s the offense I used. The tailback was farthest back from the center, and the blocking back was closest to the center, but not directly behind him. I attended all those games that year, and I have the press clippings and yearbook and All America team listings, and no one ever called Fortie a QB. That’s not my opinion. It’s just like looking back at the 1890s and saying, “Back then, the automobiles didn’t have engines, and were powered by pedaling, but they were automobiles!” The Cougar Club’s website is wrong, unfathomable as that may seem. In 1961, 1962, and part of ’63, BYU had no QB, though they’d had one before ’61 under a different coach, Tally Stevens, and have had one ever since. Not that it matters, of course. I don’t know where Fortie would rank among his fellow running backs at BYU, but I’d put him within the top 15. By the way, Fortie is still alive, so you could ask him whether or not he was a QB.

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  3. The late great Todd Christensen was an RB while at BYU. His numbers compare favorably enough with others on the list for inclusion. He even led the WAC in receptions as a junior.

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  4. I agree with most of the comments by M.S. Brothers. I was at BYU and watched Eldon Fortie run, have followed BYU football for the last 60 years, and he should be included on the list. A few corrections – – I grew up in LA and watched UCLA run the single wing. Most colleges that ran the single wing actually had a QB listed on the lineup, but the position was primarily a blocking back. In the 1962 Rose Bowl, that I attended, the staring QB was a high school classmate and he never touched the football. My business partner was a starting tailback at BYU during Hal Mitchell’s last season and he was considered one of the running backs. If you are measruing the greatest running backs at BYU, forget their position title and measure how they did when they ran.

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  5. Jmoney: Your article says “Running Backs.” How do you define a running back” HB, FB, WB, or maybe a tailback? Football has changed. Should Harvey Unga, with his statistics, be classified as a RB/Receiver? Most who are still around and attended games at the old stadium where the Richards building now stands considered Eldon Fortie to be a “running back,” because that is what he did. But, thanks for your list and stats on many who may have been forgotten.

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