Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars running back Ula Tolutau (5) celebrates a touchdown in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.
No. 10 Wisconsin (2-0) at BYU (1-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT LaVell Edwards Stadium TV: ABC
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
PROVO — For a BYU run game that has been floundering this season, big freshman Ula Tolutau is providing a big boost.
Tolutau’s brief and impactful performance last Saturday against Utah served as what coach Kalani Sitake called a “silver lining” in the 19-13 loss to the Utes.
Entering the game having had only one carry, the 6-foot-1, 255-pounder out of East High rushed five times for 25 yards and scored BYU’s first touchdown of the game.
“It definitely felt good to go into the game and get some touches,” Tolutau said. “It was fun, especially against Utah. It’s a rival.”
This week, Tolutau will be facing the school he originally signed with out of high school — No. 10 Wisconsin, which invades LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday (1:30 p.m., MDT, ABC).
“It’s just another game. It’s going to be a good game,” said Tolutau, who knows a few Badger players. “They’re a big, physical defense. It’s going to be a challenge and we’re up for it.”
Tolutau, who was named the Deseret News “Mr. Football” in 2013, suffered an injury early during fall camp and it’s taken a while to recover.
The Cougars are hoping for sustained production from Tolutau. It’s something the coaching staff has been eagerly anticipating for a while.
BYU running backs coach Reno Mahe was happy to see Tolutau contribute last week.
“He’s healthy enough. It was good to see different things that he was doing,” he said. “We’ve got to get him in a position to continue to be successful.”
“Ula obviously came in and provided a spark right there and we got a glimpse of what we thought we had,” said offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. “Now he’s feeling 100 percent and we can mix him in there more.”
Tolutau brings a new dimension to a BYU offense that has sputtered through the first three games.
“He’s brought an agile 255 pounds,” Mahe said. “You want to get a glimpse of what he can become, check out his high school highlights.”
As a senior at East High, Tolutau ran for 2,465 yards and 31 touchdowns. He signed with Wisconsin in 2014 prior to his LDS Church mission to Bakersfield, California.
“We knew what he was going to be. He’s a load. There’s a reason why Wisconsin signed him out of high school,” Sitake said. “I think he’s an aggressive runner, and I saw a little bit of that. It’s hard to bring him down because he’s heavy and he’s big. Wisconsin, who likes power running backs, signed him. That’s a compliment to him. We have running backs that can do it too.”
During Tolutau’s mission, Gary Andersen left Madison and took the head coaching job at Oregon State. When Tolutau returned home from his mission in the summer of 2014, he secured a release from Wisconsin and opened up the recruiting process.
BYU, Utah, Utah and Oregon State vied for his services before Tolutau ultimately chose to sign with the Cougars last December.
“I was excited,” recalled Mahe. “I’ve followed the kid. We’re all from a pretty small island. Everyone knew Ula. My brother lived a few doors down from him. We went after him pretty hard and hoping we could get him. When we did, we were pretty excited.”
The Cougars were also pretty excited when, on his first rushing attempt against Utah, Tolutau plowed his way for eight yards, then exploded for 13 more on his next carry. Then he plunged into the end zone from the one-yard line.
“Ula’s just a downhill runner. He gets hyped and he gets us going. It’s a lot of fun to have a back like that,” said BYU left tackle Thomas Shoaf. “He doesn’t care if there are three guys in the hole. He’ll do the most he can and he makes us want to step up. If we step up and get to the first level on the linebackers, then he’ll run the safety over and we’ll see you on the other side.”
It appears Tolutau has found a home at BYU.
“There’s a reason I committed here,” he said. “I’m confident where I’m at and I’m happy. I know we’ll get to work … It’s starting to come together, especially with the O-line. They’re making holes. We have to attack it and get some yards.”
Because of his size and running ability, Tolutau has drawn comparisons to other big backs in BYU football history, like Harvey Unga, Fui Vakapuna and Fahu Tahi. But Mahe doesn’t like to compare players.
“I don’t want to put that kind of undue pressure on a kid,” he said. “Ula’s going to be Ula. We’re happy with his progress. We’ll see how he does throughout the rest of the year.”