Sorting out the offensive line

There was some shuffling of offensive linemen on the first day of fall camp. Many new faces and some unexpected surprises lined up in the trenches the first day. The shuffle of personnel is an indication of the caliber of talent on the roster. Time will have to be the deciding factor when sorting this group out.

At left tackle, 6-foot-6-inch, 292-pound Ryker Mathews saw action for the first time since fall camp last year. Hungry and eager to get out and play, Mathews turned in a solid performance with room to grow.

"You've got Ryker and he was doing great last fall camp before he got hurt, so for the first day of fall camp a year later he's looking really good," said center Blair Tushaus. "People might not know, but he's been out a year, so it was really impressive what he did on his first day."

"Yeah, it's been a while," said Mathews. "I haven't played for a year, so I was just excited to get out there and play. I was a little rusty because of that, but I think I did pretty good. I have tons to improve on, but for a first day coming off an injury I thought I did pretty good. It was just getting out all the anxiety and first day jitters. It was good though."

"He's really talented, and for his first day back and playing on the starting offense, he did really well," said right tackle Braden Brown. "It just goes to show you what kind of talent he has."

Continuing the lineup, Solomone Kafu took the left guard starting spot on the first day of fall camp. Tushaus said Kafu is a beast.

"It's still early and we've only put one day of fall camp in the books, but on the first day of practice Solo got his chance and he did really well," said Tushaus.

Kafu, who comes in at 6 feet 2 inches and 305 pounds, took advantage of the opportunities he received on the first day of fall camp.

"The thing that I think really helped me was the offseason where I worked on consistency," Kafu said. "I think being there and putting in the time helped me establish consistency, trust from my teammates and being accountable. I think those are some of the things that really helped me, just following the other guys' examples and working out day in and day out and watching film. I think hard work and putting in the extra effort is what has given me this opportunity."

When it comes to strength, Tushaus is right about Kafu in that he's a beast.

"I bench 425 pounds," said Kafu with a smile. "My squat is around 625 and I think that's the most I've ever done. My clean is 330 pounds. If I stay healthy I think I can increase those weights."

"Man that guy is a beast and he's as strong as an ox," said Brown. "He has really good feet for his size and if he can learn the offense he could contribute this season. He is just so big and strong and moves so well."

Meanwhile, Famika Anae received reps at left guard with the second-team offense during the first day camp.

"One thing about our offensive line is we have a lot of guys in this group that can play multiple positions like left or right guard," Tushaus said. "Famika Anae is one that can do that and he can play both sides at the guard position. He was behind Solo on the first day of practice."

At center, Tushaus was the first-day starter at a position that now has more quality depth than it has had in more than three years.

"This is the first year we've had depth at center since I've been here," said Tushaus, who is a redshirt sophomore. "Last year it was Terrence [Brown] and me at the center position in years past. Houston [Reynolds] was the starting left guard last year, but now he's moved over and been learning the center position. Now we've got me, Houston Reynolds and Ryan Freeman."

Houston Reynolds was in the mix on day one and was the center for the second unit, but left due to having sore ankles.

"Houston was doing really well but then something happened," said Tushaus. "He's such a good player and he was backing me up and competing well, but he left the field for some reason."

At right guard there was a double take that took place. Manaaki Vaitai and Brock Stringham both saw action with the ones.

"Manaaki is another one that can play both sides at guard and he is another one that is doing an amazing job," Tushaus said. "Manaaki played right guard and was in the rotation at right guard, so he started out with the ones but he had to leave practice early because he had class. He's good very good."

So, Stringham then received the majority of the reps after Vaitai's departure.

"He had a great day and really took advantage of the opportunity he was given," said Tushaus.

"Brock was at the right guard on the first day and is another guy who is just a beast. He proved himself last spring ball [and] when he got some reps last fall camp and in the season," said Brown. "It really is up for grabs on who starts or not this season and will come down to the little things as far as who performs."

Stringham's road to becoming a starting contender was a long and arduous one that began last season. The fact that a sophomore can rise up and be among the contenders in a group with such potential is quite remarkable.

"It was an ongoing process that started from last season," said Tushaua. "Brock started out on the scout team last fall and was doing a great job. Then he moved his way up to the two-deep to play and get reps starting on the first team in spring. Now in fall he's getting his chance to start again on the offensive line."

Rounding out the first-day starting offensive line was Brown at right tackle.

"At right tackle is my favorite guy on the team," said Tushaus. "I make fun of him all the time, and that's Braden Brown. He's such a beast and will be protecting Riley Nelson's blindside. I know Riley will be sleeping well knowing that Braden will be protecting his blindside."

Having missed spring camp, Brown feels his first-day performance was subpar, as is to be expected.

"I think it went really well and we have a lot of guys out there with first-day jitters like me," said Brown, a senior. "I haven't played football for so long because I was out for spring ball, so I made some rusty mistakes because I had been out for so long. I think we made a lot of good plays today and for a first day I thought we did really good."

So the first-day starting five of Mathews, Kafu, Tushaus, Stringham and Brown will continue to hold onto their spots as others make a push to take their positions. One of those others making a push will be senior Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award candidate Braden Hansen.

"B-House [Hansen] was with the second team today, but normally he would be on the first team at the guard position. He was running with the twos at left tackle," Brown said. "I expect Braden to be competing on the first team soon though. I'm not quite sure what happened there and I'm sure Coach Weber could probably give a better picture there, but I will say this about Brock Stringham – he worked his butt off in the offseason and over the summer. It was almost like he was a senior and we all looked up to him to set the tempo. I think that's why you see us out here and we're all a little trimmer and a little faster."

Whether it was for motivational purposes or to simply give others a chance to show what they've got, Hansen backed up Mathews at left tackle on Thursday.

"Today he was on the second team at left tackle behind Ryker Mathews, but normally he would be at the guard spot," said Brown after the first day of practice. "I think that was a decision by Coach Weber today, but I expect to see him at left guard this season. Today Solo got that starting spot with the ones."

The first day of fall camp for the revamped offensive line was an overall good one.

"It was probably the best day for a first day that I've ever seen," Tushaus said. "Coach Weber was very pleased with us and he let us know that. We still have some work to do and we know where we need to be, but I thought we had very good tempo on the first day. We had some mistakes but, again, we know what we need to do and that will be our focus to get to where we need to be. We have a lot of new guys on the line and so we're all just very anxious, but overall the first day of practice was pretty good."

When asked to assess their performance on Thursday, a number of the players gave similar evaluations.

"If I were to grade the offensive line for a first-day performance, I would say a B," Tushaus said. "That's not bad for a first-day performance, and we'll continue to raise that grade as we get further along in practice."

"If I had to grade our first-day performance, I would say around a B," said Mathews. "I would say that's about where we are right now for our first-day performance. We'll get that up higher as we get better with our chemistry and get more reps and things like that together."

"I would say a B or B- for the first day," Kafu said. "We'll get better though by the time we're done, but for the first day coming off a summer that's pretty good."

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