PROVO — Attrition, due to injuries, has left BYU's offense decimated at an often overlooked but key position.
The Cougar offensive line was dealt yet another blow in last Saturday's loss at Notre Dame when senior center Braden Hansen suffered a groin injury that will sideline him for 2-4 weeks.
It's the latest void BYU is looking to replace on the O-line as the Cougars prepare to visit Georgia Tech Saturday (1 p.m. MDT, ROOT Sports).
"It's absolutely huge," quarterback Riley Nelson said of losing Hansen. "A senior, a leader and the center, someone who has basically started every game he's played here. So it's humongous, but we're going to do our best to try to fill it."
Sophomore Blair Tushaus, who started the first four games at center before being replaced by Hansen, is listed as the starter this week.
BYU's offensive line attracted attention in fall camp for getting thin — as in shedding pounds.
More than halfway through the season, though, the O-line is thin in terms of numbers.
The Cougars have lost Walter Kahaiali'i, Houston Reynolds and Famika Anae and Hansen to injuries. Anae went down after he started one game against Hawaii. Days later, coach Bronco Mendenhall announced that Anae's career was over due to the cumulative effect of various injuries.
Meanwhile, another promising prospect, Fono Vakalahi, transferred during fall camp.
"This year's been crazy. We have guys who have legitimate injuries — some season-ending, some career-ending," said senior right tackle Braden Brown. "Every year we battle bumps and bruises, but it's unfortunate to lose guys that way. We've got to find five guys that are capable of getting the job done and we've got to go into each game with five able and willing bodies that understand the offense and can execute."
How shorthanded are the Cougars on the offensive line?
So much so that sophomore Solomone Kafu, who starts at left guard, is Brown's backup at left tackle. Junior Manaaki Vaitai is the starter at right guard, and he's also Tushaus' backup at center.
It's gotten to the point that Mendenhall moved Tui Crichton, who has been training at nose tackle, to the offensive line at least for this week.
"Hopefully that will stop the bleeding for this week so we can practice," Mendenhall said.
This all means that Brown is being counted on heavily to help his less-experienced teammates.
"I'm a senior. This is my third year as a starter on the offensive line," he said. "I do think I have responsibility to help younger guys come in and play and know what to expect, especially going into environments like Notre Dame, Boise State and Georgia Tech. I have to do a good job as a senior of preparing guys. (Offensive line) coach (Mark) Weber has to do his job, to put five guys on the field that can get the job done."
Brown likes what he's seen from Tushaus, Kafu, and Vaitai — as well as BYU's other starter, left tackle Ryker Mathews, who is a redshirt freshman.
"They've done a great job," he said. "I couldn't be more proud of how they've played this season as first-time starters."
BYU's offensive line struggled early on in the season, and the coaching staff made some changes, including switching Hansen from guard to center prior to the Hawaii game. But Brown said the O-line had built momentum in recent games.
"We felt each week since the Hawaii game we progressed and started jelling better as a unit," Brown said. "We were confident going into the Notre Dame game. We had a good offensive game plan. Then we lost Braden Hansen due to an injury in the second half. But whatever five guys we have in there, we battle, and we've got to find a way to get the job done, and that's what we're going to have to do the rest of the season."
Nelson said he's pleased with the way the O-line has performed.
"I love those dudes. They're battlers. Each and every one of them comes to practice every day with a blue-collar attitude. They're doing everything they can to help the team whenever called upon. It just goes to show you that you're always one play away and that you owe it to your team to be ready. Those guys have done a good job."
Cougars and Yellow Jackets on the air
BYU (4-4) at Georgia Tech (3-4) Saturday, 1 p.m. MDT, Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta
TV: ROOT Sports
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company