When a team loses four starters from a good offensive line, it's supposed to be in trouble.
Especially when the team is BYU, where fortunes rise and fall on the basis of how well the offensive line protects the quarterback.So when spring practice started here two weeks ago, it was understandable that finding guys to block would be a high priority. How successful has the search been? Good enough that the lone returning starter, Brian May, has been pushed back to second team on the first two-deep chart of the year.
"It's probably been the best situation competition-wise that we've ever had," said Roger French, BYU offensive line coach. "We've got 12 to 15 players capable of starting."
For now, the starters are center Garry Pay (6-foot-5, 260 pounds), guards Garrett Tujague (6-4, 265) and Evan Pilgrim (6-6, 260), and tackles Kent Griffith (6-4, 285) and Eli Herring (6-6, 300).
In a sense, the offensive line mirrors the rest of the team - it's relatively inexperienced but perhaps more athletic than past BYU teams.
Coach LaVell Edwards said the enthusiasm and overall attitude this spring has been as good as ever, though there are a few areas of concern, such as tight end and defensive line.
Senior tight end Matt Zundel is listed first on the depth chart, but Edwards said junior Byron Rex has impressive speed and has added some weight. A couple members of the Cougs' acclaimed incoming freshman class - Provo's Terence Saluone and Hawaii's Itula Mili - are also possibilities, Edwards said.
"The defensive line will be interesting," Edwards said. "We have three or four kids who are good football players but haven't been in a varsity game."
The only defensive lineman with any experience of note is Brad Hunter, out for the spring with an ankle injury. That leaves redshirt freshman Greg Pitts (6-4, 245), sophomore Lenny Gomes (6-2, 265) and senior Chris Connors (6-4, 270) as the current front line, with three freshmen (Scott Sralla, Harland Ah You and Randy Brock) as their backups.
The youthful group will be tested early, considering BYU's killer schedule that begins with Florida State, UCLA and Penn State.
"It may take them a few games to come around, but eventually we're going to have a very good front," said linebackers coach Ken Schmidt.
The coaches agreed that the most pleasant surprise of the spring has been cornerback Patrick Mitchell, younger brother of Brian, a starting cornerback last year. A redshirt freshman speedster who rarely practiced last season due to injury, Mitchell is listed as the backup to Ervin Lee.
Another longshot impact player in the secondary is Karlos Rhodes, a defensive back from Florida whose hitting ability had the coaches raving.
With quarterback Ty Detmer still recovering from shoulder surgery, Joe Evans is listed as the second-string signalcaller but is being pressured by redshirt freshman Ryan Hancock. Edwards, noting that Hancock "had the world's worst mechanics last year," said the 6-2, 205-pounder has improved his throwing motion and always had an extraordinarily strong arm.
As for BYU's freshman class, Edwards cautioned not to expect too much from them this season. As is usually the case at BYU, most of them are expected to redshirt.
But then Edwards added, in as close to a gushing comment as he gets: "It was probably as good a group of athletes as we've signed. They're all good athletes, they all can run."
The public will get a chance to see the team in action Saturday at Cougar Stadium at noon, in the third of four spring scrimmages. Prior to the scrimmage, at 10 a.m., Edwards, Detmer and former BYU wide receiver Glen Kozlowski will offer a free motivational seminar at the Marriott Center.