There are 12 guys who can play more than one position. It gives us a lot of flexibility. We had a former offensive lineman (JJ Nwigwe) play tight end and he caught a ball (Saturday) so I thought that was good, too. —Kalani Sitake
PROVO — Kalani Sitake knows BYU football isn’t going anywhere without more wins in the trenches.
Whatever spring football showed Sitake, the progress of the offensive line has to be at the top.
BYU’s O-line made strides this month. It came in leadership, size and strength, confidence, depth, accountability and sound practices. This group is becoming closer to what traditional Cougar offensive lines have displayed when the offense succeeded.
With new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and Ryan Pugh, his protégé from his days at Auburn, the group appears more fundamentally sound and capable of getting to the second level downfield. This spring the position group has 30 percent more coaching onboard and it comes from the SEC, including the coordinator. Grimes has a trencherman's mentality in his blood. He’s an elephant whisperer. Pugh is Grimes’ clone.
“I’m really happy with what Ryan Pugh has done as offensive line coach and obviously he’s someone Grimes is very excited about,” said Sitake.
In Saturday’s final scrimmage, the discipline of the O-line stood out. There were no pre-snap penalties, drive killers. Coaches are hopeful Ului Lapuaho (6-7,340) will be healthy in the fall and veteran Jacob Jimenez (ACL) continues to get better.
“The guys are getting bigger and they’re already tall. Tommy Shoaf gained 20 pounds and is playing guard and tackle. I’ve been really happy that everyone has played more than one position on the offensive line," Sitake said. "There are 12 guys who can play more than one position. It gives us a lot of flexibility. We had a former offensive lineman (JJ Nwigwe) play tight end and he caught a ball (Saturday) so I thought that was good, too.”
This spring, several defensive linemen were held out or are recovering from injuries and Sitake says he looks forward to the fall when everyone is healthy. He expects that a talented D-line can create a real battle in the trenches and push both units forward for what should prove to be a challenging schedule.
Sitake said in August it will be a sort of “Clash of the Titans.”
“It will be a lot of fun when we get to fall camp,” he said.
Physical football at the point of attack was a mainstay at BYU when the Cougars were regularly ranked and putting linemen in the NFL.
“They have to be,” said Sitake. “They have one of the best O-line coaches in the country as coordinator and a great up-and-coming O-line coach (Pugh) and then Dallas Reynolds as a graduate assistant. Those are some great coaches right there, so they’d better be good.”
This spring, the Cougars got a first glimpse of Notre Dame transfer Tristen Hoge, who is playing guard next to redshirt freshman James Empey. Hoge said with Grimes as the coordinator, it’s a no-brainer that the offense expects to be led by linemen.
“It always starts up front,” said Hoge. “It starts when the center hikes the ball and you aren’t going anywhere unless the line gets a push up front, no matter what. We take pride in wanting to do just that.”
Hoge said Pugh has tried to fashion the O-linemen into handling pressure, doing their jobs with knowledge, and tells the linemen he will grade them on assignments and effort right now and technique will come later.
“Knowledge is power and if we know what we’re doing, we have a chance,” Hoge said, echoing Pugh’s advice given to the front-line guys.
“We’re going to go out and address the huddle, we’re going to break it the right way or we’re going to do it again. We’re very crisp and precise in what we’re doing,” said the big guard.
It remains to be seen if this offensive line is capable of getting a push and protecting against the likes of Arizona, Washington, Utah and Wisconsin this fall. But it needs to and the time for it is long overdue.
BYU once routinely had O-linemen drafted in the NFL — sometimes multiple players in the same season — under the late Roger French. But at present, the Cougars have an embarrassing run of 12 years without that type of event. Recruiting O-linemen is something that has traditionally been a program strength.
The last BYU O-lineman drafted was converted defensive lineman Scott Young, a fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005. Before that, it was Dustin Rykert in 2003 to the Raiders.
Coincidently, when Young was drafted, his position coach was Grimes.
Sitake absolutely knows BYU’s future success hinges on big bodies being good.
And there's no question Sitake and his staff ensured those large bodies took huge steps this spring.