With four starters (Matt Reynolds, Nick Alletto, Terence Brown, Braden Hansen) from last year and as many as four proven performers (Braden Brown, Marco Thorson, Ryan Freeman, Jason Speredon), the offensive line is in good shape when it comes to quality experience. Certainly the front five will prove to be about as effective as last year's, and probably even more so considering the returning talent.
"They've been doing a great job," commented offensive line coach Mark Weber about his position group. "We'd obviously like to have two or three deep, but we don't. What it does do is it causes these guys to get better because of the amount of reps they have to take, and their progress is therefore accelerated because they normally wouldn't get that amount of reps."
On a good day, Weber will have as many as 10 able bodies along the offensive line with eight of those available to participated in full-contact drills. That number is expected to increase to as many as 18 this coming fall, which will give Weber plenty of options when forming a solid three-deep roster.
In order to help manage their workload, coaches have broken into position sessions far more often than they have in the past in large part - if not totally - due to the lack of able bodies at the offensive line position. While the experience they're gaining is good, coaches are mindful not to overwork them.
"It's a challenge and I'll try to balance a heavy drill with a light drill so we don't over work them, but I think it's working out well," said Weber. "We've made it through the halfway mark and we'll continue just doing what we're doing and just keep banging away."
The focus this spring is finding the best combination of five offensive linemen, and given the very good experience participating this spring, that best five will likely be determined between those already participating in practice. The big void is obviously at center, where they'll have to replace R.J. Willing.
"I think the position will be good," answered Weber when asked of the challenge of finding a new center. "We have three guys doing reps there now with Braden Hansen, Terence Brown and Ryan Freeman, and then in the fall we'll have Houston Reynolds and a young freshman coming in, so I think we'll be good there."
With Hansen, Brown and Freeman all getting increased reps at center, they've had to make adjustments. Center isn't just another position along the offensive line, as a lot is involved in becoming an adequate center that can start at the Division I level.
"The first thing is that you have to learn that the opposing linemen are that much closer to you, but you still have to snap the ball and block him even though he's that much closer to you, and that's not easy," explained Weber. "While the other guys are off the line more and can get in their technique right away, the center has to snap it first and that's the biggest challenge for them to adjust to. On top of that, they have to make all the calls, so yeah, it's not an easy thing."
Weber's intent is to cross-train Hansen, Brown and Freeman and just keep a steady rotation with them manning the center spot until one of them stands out. He indicated that they may go clear until the end of fall practice before they make a final decision, much like they did in 2008 when Dallas Reynolds assumed the role after switching over from tackle.
"It could be during the spring, but I don't think it's as necessary to decide early as they're all capable of switching over if needed, and that's the focus this spring," said Weber. "It's all about finding our best combination of five guys. The center we'll decide on is simply the one who snaps the ball best, but also has a complete command of the offense and what we're doing and can direct traffic best."
With the offensive line's few numbers, two new offensive linemen in particular have seen a greater workload than they normally would have. Those linemen are walk-on Andrew Crawford and recently returned missionary Brad Wilcox.
"Andrew Crawford has been giving us some quality reps," observed Weber. "They're moving the ball and he's going with them, so it's really been fun. Brad Wilcox is doing better than I thought he'd be doing to this point, because he's a really tall and skinny true freshman, but he's been battling away and picking it up faster than a lot of freshman do and he's been in there a lot and we're getting some good reps with him."
More bodies in the fall
As mentioned, Weber plans on having as many as 18 able bodies available to him along the offensive front this fall. Those that will be coming in the fall include return missionaries Walter Kahaialii and Manaaki Vaitai. Meanwhile, Houston Reynolds and Marco Thorson will be able to return to full participation during fall camp. The other four will consist of true freshmen Blair Tushaus, Manu Mulitalo, Tuni Kanuch and Jordan Black.