The best is yet to come

The offensive line was going to be the strength of the team last year, and while the offense was ranked 5th in the nation in third down conversions, fans expected more. They wanted a mean, nasty and overly aggressive – but smart – offensive line to dominate in the trenches, given the experience and talent returning. Will 2012 be the same as last year, or will the line surpass expectations?

One of two returning senior starters, left guard Braden Hansen hasn't practice with the team this spring. The big 6-foot-6-inch, 313-pound Outland Trophy watch list candidate a year ago has been rehabbing.

"I just had surgery in January where I had a little scope and they took out some scar tissue," Hansen said. "It was nothing serious and I was on my feet in a week. Just the past couple weeks and months I've been working out and trying to get back to where I was before I had the scope."

He hopes to join his teammates out on the practice field sometime next week.

"I'm feeling better right now than I was last season, so it's definitely a good progression," Hansen said. "I'll be doing some drill work here soon and maybe next week I'll be out there."

As a senior with 39 starts over the past three years, Hansen will be one of the more experienced linemen up front. He's taken on more of a leadership role by helping the younger players develop.

"The biggest thing right now, we have a lot of young guys that didn't get the experience last year or were on a mission and are new to the system and offense, so I've been spending a lot of time in the film room," Hansen said. "I've also been helping a lot of these guys with their footwork out here and doing what I can to help out."

Of the linemen fielded last year, Hansen was the most aggressive and physical of the group. But, he hasn't been a part of spring practice, and therefore hasn't been a part of the chippiness and melees that have taken place.

"It's very feisty out there and it's a new level this year," Hansen said. "There's urgency and we're sick of winning 10 games. We want more and we're not satisfied. We want more as an offense and defense and I think everybody's hungry and we want to be our best."

How would Hansen describe this offensive line group?

"I would describe this offensive line as nasty and just a pit bull and eager," Hansen said. "I think we're eager to be the best and we're not backing down against anybody. I feel like last year we just tried to stay composed as an offensive line and tried to keep our head on, but I think we can still keep our heads on and still be nasty and mean."

Last season the offensive line was touted as potentially being one of the best at BYU in recent years, if not ever. However, the lack of physicality and overall dominance up front led to an underachieving result.

"We want to raise the level of play this year," Hansen said. "As far as returning starts, we were stacked last year, but I feel like our offensive line this year – even though we're more younger and not as experienced – can be just as good, if not better. We've got guys that are working harder and are hungry this year."

Following the end of last season, Hansen and some teammates already started looking to the 2012 season.

"It funny because as soon as the season was over, and it was a couple of weeks into February, me and Braden Brown set some goals as far as what we wanted to accomplish," Hansen said. "We met with some of the other seniors on the offense and we got together with the whole o-line.

"We said, ‘Hey, we need to change the culture. We need to be mean, we need to be nasty and that's what I'm looking for.' That's why I think you've seen a big difference in the attitude of the offensive line in spring. We're changing the culture of the offensive line. The best is yet to come."

Time will tell if Hansen's predictions come true, but if the offensive line is playing with the type of physicality and aggression seen during the first few day of spring camp, he could be right.

In fact, he made a prediction about the start of padded practices that ended up coming true.

"I think everybody is playing hard and stepping it up like they've been held back for years and are now getting their shot," Hansen said on Thursday, the day before full pads. "The first two days we've seen fights out on the field and I think there's going to be a lot more of that once the pads come on. It's going to be a lot of fun."

As of now, Solomone Kafu is playing left tackle and Manaaki Vaitai playing left guard. At center, Blair Tushaus has been the one groomed for calling the offensive line plays and hiking the ball. To his right, Brock Stringham is at the guard position, with Michael Yeck out on right tackle.

So, when Hansen returns to the line, where will he play and who will be moved to where?

"I'm not sure where I'm going to play and it will either be left guard or tackle," Hansen said. "Coach Weber asked me to play center and I told him I didn't think that would be in the cards for me. I think I would rather play guard or tackle, so when I get back out here next Monday I'll be working either left guard or tackle. It just depends on what Ryker [Matthews] does and if he can stay healthy. That will kind of determine."

Which position, either guard or tackle, would Hansen rather play?

"I could play either one, but I love playing guard," Hansen said. "Those first two years, my freshman and sophomore years, I played with Matt [Reynolds] at left guard. I love left guard and would feel more natural playing there. We're planning on having a good year, but I think it would help us more if I played left guard because I've played there so much."

In the end, if Coach Weber and the offensive coaches want him to play left tackle to bring more experience to that side, he'll do it.

"I'll play wherever they need me because we're going to have Braden Brown on the right side at right tackle," Hansen said. "If the coaches want to move me to left tackle to bring some experience to that left side with whoever is playing left guard, that's fine too."

If Hansen plays left guard, that would mean Vaitai will be back in the mix at another position. On Thursday, Vaitai was practicing hiking the ball to the quarterbacks during specific position drills.

"I think coaches are grooming him at left guard and center," Hansen said. "He does a great job of coming off the ball, and so I know he's really liking what he's done the first couple of days at center. But, we'll see. I think we have to first find our center, whether it's Houston [Reynolds], Manaaki or Blair.

"Once we decide that, then I think it will help us distribute and determine who will compete for the rest. If Houston plays center, then we have to find a right guard with Brock Stringham or Manaaki Vaitai. We'll figure it out as spring goes on. Like I said, the best is yet to come."

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