Provo • A polished and efficient offensive line is the tip of the spear for a college football team, new BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said several times during the Cougars’ recently completed spring practices.
How sharp BYU’s spear will be under the direction of new OL coach Ryan Pugh — Grimes’ hand-picked successor to Mike Empey, who was not retained in the big offensive staff shakeup — as it moves on without multiyear starters Tejan Koroma, Keyan Norman and Tuni Kanuch and tries to rediscover its offensive mojo remains to be seen.
It certainly looked good with a dominating performance in the spring scrimmage on April 7.
Because the Cougars could be inexperienced at quarterback and some of the skill positions, head coach Kalani Sitake said the offensive line has to be dominant.
“We have one of the best O-line coaches as a coordinator and an up-and-coming coach, so two great O-line coaches, and then there is [former BYU and NFL center] Dallas Reynolds as a graduate assistant,” Sitake said. “That’s some great knowledge. So, they better be good.”
The offensive line might get another boost this fall if senior Ului Lapuaho is cleared to play after he watched spring camp from the sidelines. Lapuaho started in 2014 and 2015, but sustained a knee injury against Utah the second game of the 2016 season and hasn’t played since.
“They are big and they are strong and I have been really happy with what Ryan Pugh has done as the offensive line coach, and obviously Grimes is really excited about them, too,” Sitake said. “The guys are getting bigger and they are already tall. … Everyone plays more than one position on the O-line, which gives us 12 guys who can play a lot of different places. It gives us a lot of flexibility.”
Based on the rotations in the scrimmage, the “starting five” entering training camp in August will be freshman returned missionary Brady Christensen at left tackle, senior Thomas Shoaf at left guard, redshirt freshman James Empey at center, redshirt sophomore Tristen Hoge at right guard and senior Austin Hoyt at right tackle.
Sophomores Kieffer Longson, Chandon Herring and Austin Chambers also saw considerable time with the ones during spring camp; Shoaf has gained 20 pounds since starting at left tackle last year and could slide back to that spot if Christensen — one of the biggest surprises of camp — falters there.
“We spent a lot of time building quality depth, and I think we have that,” Pugh said. “Every day, I tell them that they have to fight for their spot. We will play the best five guys, regardless of position. They are always competing, and I think that’s a good thing. They can develop at a higher rate through competition.”
Pugh, 29, said the goal is to be “the toughest offensive line in the country” and the kind of unit that impresses opponents when they turn on game film to watch BYU.
“We are going to fly around and play with energy and be more relentless than any team in the country,” said the former three-year letter winner at Auburn who was the starting center on the Tigers’ 2010 national championship team.
“Our O-line needs to be dominant,” said Hoge, the quarterback’s cousin who transferred from Notre Dame and sat out last year. “That has to happen. We are going to grind every day, and that is going to be the greatest part, working together to succeed.”
Hoge said BYU’s talent at offensive line is comparable to Notre Dame’s.
“The thing I see here, strengthwise and speedwise and knowledgewise, people work really hard here,” he said. “All the guys here want to be the best. And coach Pugh installs that in us. We want to be the toughest O-line in the nation, no matter what. That has brought us together, and we are pretty darn good.”
BYU’S PROJECTED OFFENSIVE LINELeft guard: Brady Christensen, redshirt freshman
Left tackle: Thomas Shoaf, redshirt junior
Center: James Empey, redshirt freshman
Right guard: Tristen Hoge, redshirt sophomore
Right tackle: Austin Hoyt, senior
Key backups: Kieffer Longson, Chandon Herring, Jacob Jiminez, Austin Chambers, Addison Pulsipher, Harris LaChance, Ului Lapuaho (missed spring camp due to injury)
Returning missionaries: Clark Barrington, J.T. Gentry