Offensive Line Tribulations to Continue in 2004?

Reports concerning BYU's 2004 offensive line have begun to surface – raising the consciousness about this key aspect of the Cougars football team. Readers probably have lightly skimmed over them or passed them over, particularly with the recent glamorous wide receiver signings grabbing the headlines.

This is to be expected since the offensive line is usually the most underrated aspect of football at any level. Mention of an offensive lineman's name is typically a negative occurrence like getting beat for a sack or being called for a drive-killing holding penalty. They have the guts but get none of the glory. Though they toil in relative obscurity, their vital role in any team's success cannot be understated.

While coaches and football insiders have always appreciated the importance of the not-so-gentle giants up front, it took none other Sports Illustrated (see Aug. 11, 2003, or Dec. 8 issues) to bring the average football fan into the loop on where the rubber really hits the road in any football contest. The author of the August SI article went so far as to call offensive linemen the smartest players on the field, bar none.

For those tuned-in to offensive line play, it's no coincidence that BYU is sitting on two consecutive losing seasons. They know the offensive line has been on life-support for two straight – and three of the last four – years.

While "ball followers" (busily eyeing the "skill" positions on each offensive snap) have ascribed the losing to poor quarterbacks, receivers and even coaches, astute fans know that's only a small part of the problem.

Certainly football is the ultimate team sport, so those skill players play pivotal roles in any successful campaign, but not as consistently as an offensive lineman who is intimately involved in every offensive play. All positions are interdependent, but the skill positions remain subordinate over the long haul to the unsung heroes of the offensive line.

Reasonable minds may disagree, but hoping for satisfactory offensive production without average line play, at least, is like planning your retirement around the lottery. It may work out, but don't count on it!

With this in mind, let me point out what should now be obvious to all but the most casual Y fans; we are in for more losing in the short-term unless (and until) the Cougars acquire some immediate help from recruiting.

While BYU has had recent success in attracting very talented prep offensive linemen, the very nature of these positions (as well as missionary service intervals) makes it unlikely that recent signees will be able to dominate early in their careers – and thus provide BYU with a solid bulwark for the upcoming season.

It typically takes some years of instruction and playing experience in a back-up role before players are ready to step in as effective starting offensive linemen in Division I football.

This is not the defensive line we're talking about, where all that is required is sufficient strength and quickness to get to the ball after it's snapped.

Given this job description, it's entirely possible that precocious true freshmen may be equal to the task of starting at nose guard or tackle on the defensive line. Case in point: Five-star Utahn Haloti Ngata who started as a true freshman at Oregon. This is clearly not the case with the offensive line. Case in point: Five-star Texan Ofa Mohetau, who started as a true freshman at BYU.

Touted by one well-known national recruiting guru as the best prep offensive lineman to matriculate in the last 10 years, Mohetau was wooed to the Y and inserted into the starting line-up early in his freshman campaign. The results were not pretty as defensive linemen and linebackers, on their way to the quarterback, victimized this fine player, who had dominated in his prep career and even in all-star performances just a few months previous.

The moral of Mohetau's story is clear: If it can happen to a player of this stature, it can happen to ANY inexperienced offensive lineman called upon to contribute too early in their career.

Relying on inexperienced players at offensive line, talented though they may be, clearly isn't a recipe for offensive success. Again, it may work on occasion, but don't count on it.

Inquiring minds really want to know how the Cougars' offense will perform in 2004? Will the Cougars shake their losing funk and regain their former tradition as Mountain West bullies and outside contenders to bust the BCS?

If you've actively followed the Cougar offensive line fortunes and know the depth chart, returning missionaries and recent signees, the answer, in my estimation, is a resounding "No." Why is this prognosis poor?

The rationale behind the answer can be boiled down to one word: experience. BYU doesn't have it and won't have it anytime soon unless new blood is infused into the offensive line from the junior college ranks.

Only through this route can all-important experience be incorporated soon enough to positively influence the 2004 season. Some claim this year's edition of the offensive line will actually have more experience than any since 2001. I disagree.

Last year's line boasted three seniors with significant playing experience while the 2004 line pales in comparison with regards to upperclassmen vs. lowerclassmen. The number of starts does not necessarily tell the whole story either as many substitutions are made during the game.

Fans may ask about all the talent in the pipeline we've all heard about. Surely they count for something. These guys aren't exactly chopped liver. They can help, right?

Unfortunately, "in the pipeline" for offensive line purposes doesn't spell relief. BYU needs well conditioned athletes with individual game experience at their respective positions and playing together as a cohesive unit in the spring – especially this year – if the Cougars are to have a decent chance of executing its controlled passing attack in the fall.

They don't have that as it stands today, and the Cougars recent mission returnees and prep recruits ("pipeline") will not achieve the level of proficiency necessary for offensive success between now and Sept. 4, 2004 – when USC comes to administer a stringent reality test.

What will BYU have in store for the Trojans? In the blue trenches will be a grand total of two returning full-time starters, each with a modest 12 games under their belts. That's certainly nothing to sneeze at, but in the continuum of offensive lineman maturity, Ofa Mohetau and Jake Kuresa, even with a year of experience, are still somewhat wet behind the ears and far from their final incarnations as dominating line anchors that will eventually change the fortunes of the football program at the Y.

While playing time is always the best medicine, years in the program also counts for something as conditioning and coaching sculpt the lineman year after year into a more competent player.

The available offensive line pool consists of two seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen. That's eight to four lower classmen to upper classmen. Furthermore, of the four upperclassmen, only two have any Division I playing experience and one has no offensive line game experience at all. On the whole, honest observers must admit we are neither mature nor experienced.

In 2004, as in the last two losing seasons, BYU will return a minority of starters on the offensive line and a majority of newbie's. The starting unit will have only one senior with modest game experience if Hanale Vincent wins the all-important role of center – vacated by the graduating Scott Jackson. Dollars to dimes, we have a new center next year and that spells trouble.

Some have suggested it would be best if the Cougars looked at someone like Scott Young, Nate Longshore or Lance Reynolds Jr. to fill the void. If this is the case, and no junior college center is signed, we're starting at square one for the most important position on the entire line because none of these players have center experience, and one, Young, has absolutely NO experience as an offensive lineman.

Filling the center's shoes is no small calling. He has the responsibility for scheme recognition and on-the-fly blocking assignment modifications ("line calls") for the entire line. He must know all position's blocking assignments for each defensive front for every called play (not to mention the backfield's protections) to adequately call for modifications when needed. And how often are adjustments needed?

I've got three numbers for you: 3-3-5. Pressure defenses that disguise blitzes are all the rage these days, with the MWC alone sporting three teams with such alignments. Their popularity is due to the havoc they wreak on all but the most capable offensive line signal callers.

To cope with these schemes, a very effective BYU center must have eyes in the back of his head and make use of "the Force" to feel where the pressure will come from in order to best coordinate his line's efforts to block it.

That's a lot to ask and that's why it often takes years to become proficient at the position and why some never master it sufficiently to enjoy consistent success.

If fans were uneasy when quarterback John Beck had his first start as a true freshman last year, be prepared for that same feeling all over again this fall for the offensive line's "quarterback" if someone other than Vincent or a junior college transfer center end up as the starter.

As if the lack of an experienced center wasn't enough, the Cougars line must also replace two other senior starters from the group that helped produce the lowest offensive output in decades. To help "reload" (used very loosely) at those positions, BYU coaches were hoping Snow College transfer Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui would step in and lend his considerable bulk to shore up the line.

Unfortunately, that won't be possible unless they kidnap him during the USC opener next year. Now they must look elsewhere for help.

If no new junior college offensive line recruits are signed, BYU coaches may give one of these vacant starting slots to Eddie Keele, a part-time starter last year as a freshman and a frequent victim of opposing defenses.

He will certainly improve by fall, but the bottom line is he had trouble getting it done last year. That fact alone makes counting on him as an answer for next year a decided leap of faith.

Other internal promotions may come to the aforementioned Scott Young, who is a hard worker and certainly a physical specimen. Because of a lack of experience, Young is not a sure thing anywhere outside the weight room.

The remaining in-house contenders, Paul Fisher, Brian Sanders, R.J. Willing, Kai Jones, David Sollami and Gary McGiven are all inexperienced. With the exception of Sanders, these underclassmen are likely to suffer growing pains in full public view just as Kuresa, Mohetau and Keele did last year. It's Déjà vu all over again.

Returned LDS missionaries Junior Kato or Travis Bright will get looks, but redshirts will likely be fitted for these two.

The offensive line play was so poor last year, especially in mid-season, that any able bodied offensive lineman present in the program at that time was no doubt auditioned by the coaches. Evidently, none were judged an improvement to the existing starters and so the status quo was maintained.

This speaks volumes about the success we can look forward to next year if we are constrained to promote solely from within the program to plug offensive line holes.

I hope I'm wrong, but I believe the outlook for BYU's offensive line in 2004 isn't great and may actually be worse than either of the last two years.

Standing pat is a possibility, but while pleasant surprises can happen, chances are we won't hit that lotto jackpot in 2004. Now, 2005, that's an entirely different story …

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