Ranking the best running backs in BYU history

By: Jay Yeomans

Published: May 20, 2019

Now that we have hit the long break between spring ball and the start of the college football season, it is time for us here at JMoneySports to look back at the legendary players and teams that created the legacy that is BYU football.

In the first installment of our look back at the greats who wore Cougar blue, I want to dive into the dominant backs who helped to carry the load for the BYU offense.

It is important to mention that my rankings are obviously subjective. We all see the game differently and value different things. It is also what makes debates on these topics fun.

Note: These rankings are based on what each player did only during their time in Provo.

Just missed the cut:

Todd Christensen (1974-77)

Before he went on to have a spectacular career as an NFL tight end, Christensen was a gifted running back during the early days of LaVell Edwards. He was a First-Team All-Wac performer who did more as a receiver than a runner but still finished with more than 1,000 yards on the ground while catching 158 passes for 1,619 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Ronney Jenkins (1996-98)

Jenkins could easily be at the top of this list had he made it in Provo for four years, but his two years as a Cougar were very special. He was a beast as a junior when he recorded 1,656 yards from scrimmage, including a WAC-best 1,307 yards rushing to go along with 15 touchdowns.

Matt Bellini (1986-90)

Like Christensen, Bellini did most of his damage for the Cougars catching passing, but also found the end zone carrying the ball on 14 occasions. All told, he put up 3,566 yards from scrimmage and scored 29 touchdowns.

10. John Ogden (1964-66)

Ogden was one of a handful of great backs to play in Provo before the LaVell Edwards era. He was a two-time first-team All-WAC performer who wracked up more than 2,300 yards on the ground with 12 total touchdowns.

9. Jeff Blanc (1973-76)

Blanc was wildly productive as a rusher and receiver for the Cougars. He took home All-WAC recognition twice and put up more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and double figures in touchdowns as a sophomore and junior. He left Provo as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. 

8. Lakei Heimuli (1983-86)

Heimuli was the go-to back for the Cougars during their magical National Championship season in 1984. He was even better as a junior when he finished in the top 10 in the country in rushing yards and receptions. In four seasons, he registered more than 3,800 from scrimmage and 32 touchdowns.

7. Pete Van Valkenburg (1969-72)

Van Valkenburg had an amazing senior season for the run-heavy offense that led the Cougars to just the third seven-win season in school history. That year, he led the country in rushing with 1,386 yards and 12 scores.

6. Jamal Willis (1991-94)

Willis was a terrific runner and an excellent pass catcher during his four seasons on the field in Provo. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore and a senior, including a 1994 season where he put up 1,567 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns.

5. Curtis Brown (2002-06)

Brown was wildly productive for the Cougars out of the backfield during his last three seasons on campus, but what he did as a junior and senior was off the charts. He produced more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage each season, including more than 1,000 on the ground and 50 catches.

4. Eldon Fortie (1960-62)

Even though Fortie threw more 200 passes during his time with the Cougars, many of the record books classify him as a running back, so we will too. After being a solid contributor during his first two seasons on the field, he really put things together during the 1962 campaign to become the first BYU player to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting.

That year, Fortie finished second in the nation in rushing with 1,149 yards on the ground to go along with 14 touchdowns. That was good enough to take home the WAC offensive player of the year.

3. Harvey Unga (2006-09)

Unga was a monster from the second he arrived in Provo. He delivered three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing and double-digit touchdowns. He was also a gifted pass catcher who collected more than 100 receptions for better than 1,000 yards and nine more scores.

2. Jamaal Williams (2012-16)

Williams played the game with a passion and a joy that was just infectious. He also seemed to have a smile on his face whether he was busting up the middle or taking it around the edge for a big gain. He totaled two 1,000 yards rushing seasons, had three years with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and finished as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,901 yards.

1. Luke Staley (1999-2001)

The fight for the top spot was as close as it could get, but in the end, the Doak Walker Award put Staley over the top.

Injuries kept Staley from putting up consistently huge numbers, but when he was on the field, he was something special. The 2001 season was one for the books as he rushed for a school-record 1,596 yards and an eye-popping 24 touchdowns on just 196 carries. He added another 334 yards and four scores through the air to finish with an astounding 1,930 yards from scrimmage and 28 touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough to lead the nation in scoring and touchdowns while finishing second in yards from scrimmage and rushing yards.




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