“I just worked on my quickness and getting my speed up,” J.J. Di Luigi said. “I’ve also worked on my side-to-side movement quicker. I feel a lot healthier and a lot more in shape this year, so that has also helped me out a lot.”
“The biggest difference is he’s healthier and he’s really fast,” said Cougar quarterback Max Hall about Di Luigi. “He also had a really good offseason and he’s looking quick. He’s dodging guys out there on the field and he’s playing like the J.J. we all saw in high school.”
While a running back for Canyon Country High School, Di Luigi was almost unstoppable between the tackles. His quickness on the field earned him the CIF Division I State Championship MVP after racking up 138 yards on 21 carries. Di Luigi learned quickly during his first year at BYU that much of what he did at the high school level could not be applied at the college level due to greater speed and the overall increase in talent.
“There are big adjustments that you have to make in how you run when you come to the college level,” Di Luigi said. “As I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work, I’ve made those adjustments. I have my strengths and abilities and just need to know how to apply those things at this level. Coach Reynolds gets on me and has helped me to know when to turn up and how to use my strengths within the offense. He’s really helped me a lot.”
The transformation Di Luigi has made towards becoming another offensive threat has come in just a short time. During spring camp he still seemed somewhat hesitant and played with caution, and that slowed him down. Fast forward to fall camp, and he’s running like a new man.
“I also know my position a lot better now and know what I can and can’t do,” Di Luigi said. “I’ve had to make some adjustments in the way I run and I’m also mentally right. It always makes it a lot easier knowing what you need to do and where to go, and once you know all of those things then you can play at a higher level.”
With more confidence and more running with authority, Di Luigi showed his threat-potential during the team scrimmage held at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday. With Harvey Unga being held out for protection purposes, Di Luigi used the opportunity to help the offense move the ball down the field.
“I think we did really good moving the ball today,” said Di Luigi. “I feel really comfortable with our offensive line up front. We’ve got big Terence Brown up there and R.J. Willing and they’re doing a great job. They aren’t giving up sacks and are opening up holes for the backs. It’s just our job to hit [the holes] but they’re doing a great job up front, and not just for the running backs but in allowing Max to have time to hit his receivers also.”
Another more noticeable improvement is Di Luigi runs more comfortably, picking his way through the line following a handoff. It’s easier to see the holes in the line opening up and then run through them when running a draw play, but to receive a traditional handoff in the backfield, make cuts and choose the holes as the flow of the line develops is a bit more difficult.
“I’m more comfortable running between the tackles,” Di Luigi said. “It’s about vision and being able to quickly see how things develop and hitting the holes hard. I feel comfortable with hitting those holes as they open up in the middle of the offensive line. You have to learn how to hit it up in the middle hard and be a good runner up the middle. The middle is where the big runs come from. If the offensive line can make a good hole and if you see it open up, you can hit it hard for a good 10-to-15 yards before you reach the safeties.”
In regards to safeties, Andrew Rich has had the task of keeping Di Luigi in check and was very complimentary of the sophomore running back’s overall fall camp and LES scrimmage performances.
“Well, wow, where do I start with him?” said Rich. “His first two steps are really fast. What makes J.J. so tough to defend is he’s so quick and shifty and it makes it really hard for us to get a helmet on him. On top of being so shifty, he also has a strong lower body and really good balance, and so he’ll come up and hit you. He has a lot of strength to hit you and keep his center of balance. I think he’s going to do great things for us this year.”
Running the ball between the tackles isn’t the only thing required to be a successful running back at BYU. One must also be soundly integrated within the passing game. Di Luigi was the recipient of a few Max Hall passes out of the backfield and was able to chew up yards in the open field like a jitterbug on ice.
“I love catching the ball,” said Di Luigi with a smile. “Just get me out in space and get me the ball. If I’m out there in a route and if Max sees me I’m more than willing to go catch that ball and take it upfield as fast as I can. I love catching the ball out of the backfield and heading upfield.”
Aside from his physical development within the running back position, Di Luigi has also had an inner transformation as well. This year he’s enjoying the experience as a BYU Cougar and feels that one of the biggest changes he’s seen is the fun and excitement he’s having.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” Di Luigi said. “This team is a lot of fun. I love my teammates and we’re all just having a lot of fun out there. I think this is going to be a good year and can’t wait.”