"You know, it's been fun. It's fun and I love to be with all of these young men and be able to help them," Atuaia said. "Practice is a small part of the day that we have to help them. Most of the day was spent not doing football stuff, but school things. So, the totality of it all is a blessing to me to help these young men progress in every aspect."
As BYU's new running back coach, Coach Atuaia fully understands that there is a high expectation placed on his shoulders from friend and offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
"Coach Anae doesn't settle for anything mediocre, whether it's me or it's Guy [Holliday] or Jason [Beck] or Garett [Tujague]," said Coach Atuaia. "You know, it's the same standard that is expected from Bronco. All that we are doing is trying to follow that same mantra, and then ensuring that in every room that all the players adhere to that. I wasn't around much as an administrator. I was just there for all the glory things like the game and eat all the food and things like that. In this scenario, as a coach, I'm here with them every day and working trying to get better. I know for certain that part of the evaluation of getting us to come to BYU as coaches was to commit to doing that, ensuring that we're following that mantra. Right now I think as a team, as a collective and as a group, we're doing that. That's the way it's going to be from here on out. Whatever Bronco and Robert have to say, we're going to do."
Since heeding the call to set down the administrator title and become a coach, Atuaia's life has drastically changed.
"Well, let me tell you, the administrative life is nice!" Atuaia said. "We eat lunch every day and make decisions there, but this deal chasing around these 18- and 19-year-old young men to help them is a fulltime job. Their lives don't stop after they leave the field as well as ours as coaches, but we're passionate about what we do and how they are. So, we just try our best to ensure that they're doing the right things, especially with school. We want to make sure that they're getting good grades and graduate."
There are seven running backs currently on the roster. Four of them have game experience in Michael Alisa, Paul Lasike, Iona Pritchard and Jamaal Williams. There a good chance that Adam Hine will figure into the mix this season given his talents, time in the program and the tempo of this offense.
"We're rotating them and it's survival of the fittest," Atuaia said. "We've trained that way from the first day that I was hired. We got up at 5:00 in the morning and we're getting ready, lifting, running, and it's for this purpose [spring camp] right here. When we get between the hashes and when we're on the field, that's what we're trying to do – make sure they're in their best shape and functioning at a high level, so they can execute what we want them to do."
In evaluating Alisa, he seems to have the hop in his step when he receives a handoff.
"He's fine and he's here with us," said Atuaia. "I haven't heard any complaints from him, and I suspect I won't, so him, and everybody else in this corps, they know what the expectations are and they know what we're going to ask of them. You either got to get on board or come stand by me on the side, and that's how we're going to roll. Michael gets the message and everybody else gets the message."
Also back with another year under his belt is Pritchard.
"Iona is going to do what we ask him to do," said Atuaia. "Right now we're asking him play some as an h-back and some of those things. Again, he's been preparing himself physically and doing all the things he needs to do. Coming out here and executing in the way that we've seen so far, he's progressing.
"But again, everybody has a clean slate and nobody has anything given to them. This entitlement thing that may exist at other places, or whatever, Bronco and Robert are absolutely not in that category. Everybody is fighting for that position and right now it seems like it's the survival-of-the-fittest-guys that are going to play. That's how we're going to go about this."
But what do his players think of Atuaia?
"He's just fun and we can have a great time, but yet at the same time it's about hard work, focus and determination," said Williams. "You can have fun with him, but when it's time to perform he can switch over to that game face and brings that focus face to hold you accountable to what you need to do."
Many have seen Atuaia's affectionate smile on TV while he stood on the sidelines during football games in past seasons. That smile is born from a disposition of one who cares and wants others to be successful in any way imaginable. And yes, that means he will put away the smile if it means raising his voice like his coaching counterparts.
"They've heard me before when I was going through graduate school here," said Atuaia while smiling from ear to ear. "A lot of them were young, but they know how we operate, I think, for the most part – whatever we can do. Anything as a coach, whether it's motivating, teaching, mentoring, whatever, those things are what we're going to do. We're going to absolutely do everything we can to prepare these young men, motivate these young men and have them do exactly what we need them to do. If it's yelling like a psycho maniac, I'm going to do that. That's just how we're going to go about it to make sure we give these young men everything."
There is no doubt that this offensive coaching staff has a more vocal disposition, and with that a string of sympathy that runs through the core of Coach Atuaia's heart. When it comes to yelling and getting chewed out, Coach Atuaia, and other assistant coaches, have been on the receiving end as well.
"Well, I know how it feels to get chewed out, and I know how it feels to get yelled at," said Atuaia while smiling. "Being as old as I am, and having those things continue to still happen, you know, they see that. If I'm going through that and they see that, they know, ‘Well, okay, if Mark is going through that and when he does that to us…' They know that I've been there and that I'm just doing it out of care for them.
"Whether I'm getting yelled at by Bronco or Robert or whether I do the yelling, it's just a part of what we're doing, and I think that they understand the whole key is just helping them get better and us getting collectively better."
So as the staff continues to develop the offensive scheme, the players will continue to hear the vocal calls of their coaches who are constantly evaluating them.
"Absolutely, everything is about evaluating," Atuaia said. "Nobody is exempt from it. Not Jamaal, not Michael and nobody. Everybody is battling right now and that's the way I personally feel, but more so Bronco and Robert."
The first week of spring camp focused on developing the players through drills and introducing the basic tenants of the offensive scheme. There will come a time when coaching will take on a different tune, and Coach Atuaia will have to instruct his charges on how to run the ball.
"The reference point for us is that old-school BYU offense that we ran," said Coach Atuaia. "I don't think this is going to be a big revelation to you guys, but football is piracy. Everyone is biting and doing what they have to do to get better. Again, a lot of the base and core things that I learned as a player, we still use some of those things but it's a reference point. If Robert needs to talk to me about something, saying, ‘Hey, we need to adjust here,' I'll be able to stay with him and communicating with him to pass along to the kids."
Coach Anae was the running game coordinator at Arizona before returning to BYU after this past season. The Wildcats averaged 172 rushing yards a game and 6.1 yards per carry under Anae in 2012. There certainly will be some nuances he'll incorporate and pass onto Atuaia, having learned under Coach Rich Rodriguez.
"Well, this is stuff that we didn't do," said Atuaia. "There's different parts in the West Coast deal and what we did - I wouldn't call what we did the West Coast – and just working with all those things. There's some similarities and some nuances and intricacies that we're now working through. It's different than what Robert did before [at BYU] and what Robert brought from Arizona. Again, working with Robert and knowing what we want to do with these young men, and, again, understanding their skill set, I think it's a good thing."