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Frosh making a mark on line in spring drills

A sign of weakness? Or a unique talent?

It isn't normal for a BYU freshman lineman to return from a mission in December and break into the starting lineup by February spring practice.

Meet Eddie Keele. He's in the process of doing just that.

A smaller guy, a receiver or back, may get it done sooner.

Three months ago, the 6-foot-5, 285-pound native of Othello, Wash., was in the Dominican Republic handing out pamphlets and preaching love and peace. On Saturday, he was trying to figure out how defensive end Brady Poppinga managed to throw him to the ground.

On other plays, he holds his own and feels just fine doing it.

It was Keele's first day playing left tackle. The day before, on Friday, he played left guard. "They're letting me learn both positions so I could be used whereever they want me," Keele said.

Keele, and redshirt freshman Jake Kuresa represent the new kids on Gary Crowton's upfront block. They're inexperienced, but they've got something you don't coach — some impressive measurable talent. Both could be starting against Georgia Tech next August.

Keele represents a scholarship guarantee BYU's staff decided must be given at midyear. Another returning missionary, San Antonio linebacker Brock Stratton, pressed hard for a midyear in December but a misunderstanding about his early release date led to a mutual agreement he'd be better off at Texas Tech.

Keele, however, was a guy the Cougars needed after going 5-7 and breaking down up front.

"I really put the heat on for that because I knew him before he left, and I thought the guy could help us right away," offensive line coach Lance Reynolds said.

"I'm glad they had faith in me and gave me a chance," Keele said. "I have a lot of improving and running to do. I need to learn my techniques. I hope to be up to 300 pounds by fall."

In high school, Keele entered a Nike camp in Oregon and pressed 180 pounds 30 times — more than any athlete in the camp. He can bench 400 pounds, runs a 5.1 40 and had a 20-yard shuttle run time of 4.7 seconds. Keele drew offers from Washington and Oregon and recruiting trip offers in 1999 to Michigan and Washington State along with BYU. He's agile and quick enough to hold his own playing tight end while goofing off.

The raw, untapped talent and his potential are not lost on Crowton. Same with Kuresa.

If BYU started today, the line could be comprised of Brandon Stephens and Keele at tackles, Quinn Christensen and Kuresa at guard and Scott Jackson at center. Hanale Vincent is also in the mix. Defensive tackle Scott Young switched to the O-line and is making progress. Another D-lineman, Ifo Pili, is considering making the switch.

BYU's offense will go nowhere next fall if Crowton doesn't retool his line into some semblance of what he had his first year. In 2000, the Cougar front line was big, experienced and feisty.

This past year, Crowton's hogs up front were injured, ineffective and off balance most of the year. This year Reynolds wants the front line to be "grittier."

If a rookie like Keele can step up this spring, perhaps it's a mission possible.

"Eddie came home in pretty good shape," Reynolds said. "He worked hard in the weight room. He's got a solid psyche, moves well, and he's got very quick feet. Obviously he's got miles to go but we couldn't feel more positive about anybody than we do about him right now."

So, a rebuilding of the front is on. People get worked up over the quarterback derby and new faces in the backfield in Cougarville. But if Crowton and Reynolds don't fill the trenches, the pretty boys that get all the ink may not matter.

This fall, it could come down to freshmen. A weakness or emerging stars?