Kafu talks about developing offensive line

As the old saying goes, ‘It all starts up front.' The meaning of that simple phrase became ever so clear last season as BYU's offensive line struggled to dominate in the trenches. This year a greater emphasis has been placed on making sure the big men up front live up to what is expected of them. Right now the coaches are having them compete to see who wants it the most.

Coach Tujague is a very active coach. Much like Coach Poppinga, Tujague is very active and directly involved with the players during drills and in team sessions.

"He can outrun me sometimes," said Solomone Kafu. "That guy's energetic. He's ready to go! He definitely brings the energy to practice."

In fact, ‘The Hulk' – as Coach Tujague was affectionately called – looks like he could still suit up and play, but the real Hulk might be Kafu, who is a beast in the weight room.

"I'm not sure but I think the most I've ever benched was 415 pounds," Kafu said. "For my squat I would say 625 or around there. My clean, I think it's 330 pounds."

See what I mean? But if BYU is to get back to dominating trench warfare, it won't be due to one individual. It will come from the increase of overall unit ability.

"Definitely made progress as a unit," said Kafu. "We're feeling confidence, not just as individuals, but in each other in making our call and making any necessary change to run the play. It's been smooth. I guess that's the best way to describe it. You know, because as a unit we kind of struggled at the beginning, but now we're kind of finding this groove, especially with the center being the key to success. It's been good."

In order for the change in offensive scheme to work, the offensive line has to be the key. The intensity, pace, execution and chemistry all have to combine with developed talent.

"I think it's improvement and understanding our assignments, because right now I think we're picking up the intensity and understanding the pace that we have to work at," Kafu said. "Now it's just execution. You know, it's good that we are going downfield. It's good that we are working the second level, but I think right now it's knowing our assignments and executing it without second-guessing things all the time."

The offensive line isn't currently at full strength. Ryker Mathews hasn't joined the fold as the left tackle, and that could hurt him. In his place, Brad Wilcox has received most of the first-team responsibilities.

"It's the reps that add up that make you a better player," Kafu said. "You know what they say, ‘Practice makes perfect,' and that's just the opportunity we have right now in spring. Every rep that we get out there is going to make you better. Whether it's a good rep or a bad rep, you're gaining experience, so, yeah, it's definitely an advantage."

When Mathews comes back he'll have to fight to regain his starting role. Coach Anae is not going to give anything back. Players will have to take it. And that's what we are currently seeing all across the offensive line with the mixing and matching that's going on.

"It's kind of experimenting and working to see who would work best at what position, because everything is kind of up in the air as far as experience," Kafu said. "A lot of offensive linemen that we have right now, a majority of them, are either walk-ons or guys who returned from their missions. Right now everything is kind of up in the air. We all have that mindset that we want to get in there and go hard, but it's more about working as a unit. That's the balance we're trying to find here while building that chemistry as an offensive unit."

The first-team unit so far has been: Brad Wilcox at left tackle, Solomone Kafu at left guard, Manaaki Vaitai at center, Kyle Johnson at right guard, and Michael Yeck at right tackle.

"Brad is playing really, really well right now, and that's great because Ryker is recovering," said Kafu. "He's someone that knows the responsibilities at left tackle and knows the calls and makes the right calls. His doing a great job and we're growing as a group in regards to chemistry."

And what about Kafu?

"Strength- and ability-wise, I feel really confident," said Kafu. "It's the stamina and being able to keep up with the pace is where I feel I struggle most. You know, it's good that you're doing well and being consistent the first few plays, but it's a matter of staying consistent and being able to put your will over their will. As we continue to play you see the defensive line gradually get tired. We can then take advantage of that. The key is to not show that you are tired when you are tired. I think that's the biggest trouble for me right now is not to look tired."

Last week the center position struggled a bit with snapping the ball. Last Monday, the centers were able to clean that up and be more productive. Vaitai and Alletto have been battling it out for the first-team spot at center.

"With Manaaki, he brings experience and it gives us confidence as an offensive line knowing that someone from last year is here with us," said Kafu. "So it definitely brings up our ability to play better. When Alletto comes in there a little bit of hesitation, but we know he's willing to do the work, so it's a different mindset when both of those guys come in.

"I think there's been a few games that Alletto has played in. It gives him an opportunity to see what he can do at center, because that was his original position in high school. So, right now seeing him play the center position gives us a feel of how he would play there."

Freshman Kyle Johnson has so far beaten out Tui Crichton to take the first-team spot at right guard, but that doesn't mean that Crichton, who started off at left guard over Kafu the first week, is far behind.

"Tui, coming in here, he's been great effort-wise and in his ability," Kafu said. "He's been helping us a lot. I think Tui coming in, last season he had a few reps, but seeing him now in spring has been an eye-opener, because we can see what he can do. There's been a lot of surprising things he can do. He moves well for his size and he gets off the ball. He's contributed a lot to being that right guard, especially with us losing a lot of veterans from last year."

At the right tackle position is big 6-foot-8-inch, 288-pound junior Michael Yeck who, according to Kafu, has really picked up his game.

"Michael Yeck has made a lot of improvements," said Kafu. "I think his size is the obvious improvement, and to see him play right now, he's been able to show his abilities with his size and strength."

During the first week of spring camp Crichton played left guard over Kafu, but has now been playing right guard on the second unit. The second-team offensive line is as follows: Quinn Lawlor at left tackle, Ryan Reynolds at left guard, Terrance Alletto at center (Alletto has rotated with Parker Dawe), Tui Crichton at right guard, and Andrew Crawford at right tackle.

Surprise linemen

There are two offensive linemen that have caught the attention of Kafu this spring camp: Quinn Lawlor and Terrance Alletto.

"The most amazing person I think is Quinn Lawlor because he's really stepped it up … although he's had like one or a few games last season that he played in. He's come in spring, especially with the guys that we have injured, to step in and take responsibility and do well [and that] has been the surprising thing to me. He's doing really well, especially for a walk-on. It's really surprising to see him play the way he is and do well.

"Quinn has been with us for a while, and to see the level of consistency is a real eye-opener to all of us. I was watching him and thinking, ‘Man, he's kicking butt!' He's knows his responsibility as a left tackle and that helps us so much as a group knowing that we have left tackles to work with. When you have a left tackle that knows what he's doing, you feel comfortable. Sometimes you're hesitant when someone right next to you isn't making the right calls, and Quinn Lawlor has shown that he's able to take that responsibility."

Lineman rotation?

We hear of wide receivers and running backs rotating in order to keep them fresh with this new fast-paced offense, but they're not nearly as big as the offensive linemen. Is there a plan in the works to rotate the linemen?

"That's a great question!" Kafu said. "I think at this point it's still up in the air. I think we're still trying to find it, because although we've made a lot of progress since last Monday, I'm not sure how rotations will work. I don't know, the way we move and with the level of intensity that we're playing at, I'm not sure how that would work.

"When it comes down to being tired and fatigued, that's the first thing that comes to your mind, like, ‘Man, I just wish we had guys in here.' But what it comes down to and what we're looking for are guys that can grind meat and get out there and put in the work regardless if they've been out there for 10 or 15 plays. As crazy as it sounds, that's what we're looking for."

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