During the Ole Miss game, Michael Alisa caught a swing pass from out of the backfield, blew past linebackers and raced downfield along the sidelines. It was the real first glimpse of what BYU had in the sophomore running back. With only three catches in that game, Alisa was third on the team in receiving yards, but nothing really transpired after that eye-popping play in Vought-Hemingway Stadium.
That chance would come five games later against San Jose State.
“Coach Doman mentioned to me that he was going to give me a few carries to see how I was going to do,” Alisa said. “That’s all I pretty much knew going into the San Jose State game – that I was going to get a few carries.”
Alisa made the most of those carries. It was during the San Jose State game that Alisa’s career hit a major turning point.
“I just feel like that game is in the past,” Alisa said. “I'm going to keep on going and growing. I still have a lot to learn physically and mentally. I still have a lot to improve on.”
During Monday’s press conference, Coach Mendenhall likened Alisa to former BYU running back Harvey Unga, but added that Alisa has a little more top-end speed.
“I look at Harvey and I respect him a ton,” Alisa said. “In fact, I'm honored that I would even be compared to him at all. He’s a great player. I don’t know if I'm faster than him because he’s a fast, fast guy and he’s stronger and heavier. I mean, he has all the tools and if I could ever get to his level I would be happy about that.”
Alisa prepped at the same high school as Unga and watched him run both at Timpview and BYU.
“I love watching Harvey Unga and I love watching guys like Adrian Peterson run,” Alisa said. “They’re the bigger back types that run hard and physical.”
Although he played as a true freshman, Alisa’s career at BYU didn’t start out at the running back position. Rather, he played linebacker. After playing one year, Alisa answered the call to serve in the Puerto Rico, San Juan West Mission. It was during this time that he prayed about his football career and got an answer that changed everything.
“All during my mission I was focused on the work obviously,” Alisa said with a smile. “There were times while I was laying in bed late at night thinking about football. I just knew that I wanted to play running back. I knew that if I came back and didn’t make the move, that I would regret it for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what would happen but I wanted to give it a shot.
“Honestly, I did pray about it and the impression that I received was that it was something that I should do. It was a position that I really loved and that I would work harder at it. I just felt like Heavenly Father let me know that because of that I would find greater success playing that position. I think personally the Lord inspired me to go after my dream, so I made the switch to running back when I came home.”
One coach that is grateful he followed the spiritual confirmation is BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman.
“I’ve prayed a few times for a lot of things,” Doman said with a laugh. “No, I’m so glad he’s a running back and that he’s emerged. Two weeks ago I came to him before the game and I said, ‘Michael, we’re going to put you in for two runs and make hay with those two runs.’ He … has done a phenomenal job.”
During the San Jose State game, Alisa rushed the ball 16 times for 92 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Against Oregon State’s tough run defense, Alisa rushed the ball 20 times for 84 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and scoring one touchdown in the process. Although a sophomore, Alisa is essentially a true freshman at the running back position with this being his first year playing in the backfield.
“He’s done a phenomenal job sprinting through the opportunity,” Coach Doman said. “Some guys just do that. Some guys get the opportunity and they’re so ready, and they’re so prepared, and so hungry that when they get the chance they sprint right through it, and that’s what Michael has done as good as anybody in my coaching career here.
“There are three things that are happening with Michael. He’s making a decision, he’s making a cut, then he goes vertical. Great running backs do that, and that was hard for him as a young running back. He still has a long ways to go and he’s still manipulating some of those runs, but you’ll watch him, he’ll stretch a run and crease and then it’s vertical.”
The combination of those things Doman mentioned have caused some challenges for defensive players.
“He gets on those safeties before they get on him,” Coach Doman said. “As that game gets going, they don’t want any more of that. They’re less anxious to meet him, and that’s how Harvey got all those extra yards and why Luke Staley got some of those extra yards, is because they got on [those safeties] so fast and then they were physical when they did, and that’s what [Alisa] is doing.
“As a coordinator when you start having guys breaking tackles and a 4-yard run turns into a 12-yard gain – we didn’t do that for five games, so we had to call a run and block it for four and we would get four and that’s hard. Now, we call a run and block it for four and get eight. That’s when we become hard to defend and that’s what’s happening with our offense right now, and then you add the mobility of Riley [Nelson] into that package with some of the play action that we’ve been able to do, [and] our first- and second-down efficiency has skyrocketed. Now you’re seeing we’re 77 or 76 percent conversion rate of third downs since Riley started playing.”
Despite his recent surge, Alisa remains humble and teachable.
“Really, right now I don’t consider my past two games being that successful,” Alisa said. “I feel like I could have done a lot better in both of them. I really want to give all of my current success to the offensive staff, the offensive line, and feel like I still have a long way to go. I hope one day I get there.”
If that truly is the case, then BYU fans can’t wait to see the day when Alisa finally does get there. With Idaho State next on the Cougar list of opponents, Alisa just might get his chance to further hone those skills.
“Our number one goal right now is to play to our potential, and if that comes against Idaho State, then great,” Coach Doman said.
So what are the keys to victory?
“I would say a physical run game and ball security,” Coach Doman said. “If we have a physical run game and secure the ball, we’re going to be hard to stop. I would just say those two things right there, because our third down conversions and [blue] zone scores will all be factors of those two things.”
Bring on Michael Alisa!