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Offensive line is key to Cougars' fortunes

The long-lost BYU offensive line of 2004.

As a group, they're as mix and match as an overstuffed sock drawer.

They come in all shapes and sizes. They've got more backgrounds than Microsoft Windows. They've been overhauled, redone, readjusted and worked in the shadow of the great 2001 offensive line that featured the likes of veteran stars Jason Scukanec and Teag Whiting. They've been orphans, adopted and retrained, accepted and rejected, maligned and seldom praised.

They took on Notre Dame, USC and learned. They kept humble, took their lumps. When everyone said they couldn't do anything to help runners, they shut their mouths and kept hope alive by working harder, staying late, watching film and listening to their teacher, Jeff Grimes.

Today, they're feeling pretty good. They appear to be coming into their own. And in the process, they find themselves the keepers of BYU's season fortune the next four games. As these guys go, so will Cougar football.

They didn't ask for it, but now it's here, and they're OK with the task.

Bring it on.

Last Wednesday, before the Cougars took to the practice field, coach Gary Crowton sat on a bench outside the locker room as BYU players shuffled to the FieldTurf and started stretching.

Crowton praised the offensive line. They'd been a bright spot in a loss to UNLV, and he sensed they'd have a breakout game in the homecoming clash with Wyoming.

"I can just see it when they practice," Crowton said.

"I see that they are physical and nasty, and I mean that in a good football sense. They're keeping their pads down, holding their blocks, the holes are getting bigger, and they are getting after it."

Crowton envisioned good things as a result. "Curtis Brown is running harder. He's got his confidence back from his injury and sitting out a year. That's been very encouraging."

Three days later, Brown gained 159 yards on Wyoming and looked impressive in the process. Nobody in a Cougar uniform had run like that since Luke Staley — or Brown against Utah State in 2002 — with the exception of Rey Braithwaite's 169 at New Mexico last season.

The Cougar run game, once among the worst in the country, is still a lowly 112th with a 90.56 average. But in the past three games, it has been a whole new season for the Cougars in MWC play with impressive rushing against CSU, UNLV and Wyoming.

If you scrap the first three games (and you can't) and just count MWC play, Brown has gained 358 yards on 47 carries for a 119.3 yards-per-game average. That would rank him No. 11 nationally in rushing.

That's how sharp the turn has been. In the past 18 games the Cougars are 17-1 when they rush for 150 yards or more. Something to chew on as the Cougars creep toward a .500 mark in 2004.

And it begins with the hogs up front. BYU's offensive line has been reeling since 2001 when a veteran LaVell Edwards unit left. Since then, they've plugged in freshmen in twos and threes and used converted defensive linemen in droves.

Consider today's lineup.

Right guard Jake Kuresa is a converted defensive tackle. So is right guard Scott Young. And the center, Lance Reynolds, was a linebacker.

Young and Reynolds never played a down of offense in Division I until the opener against Notre Dame last month.

Left guard Brian Sanders is a senior who'd never started in his career until the Fighting Irish game. Left tackle Eddie Keele played as a freshman right off a mission a year ago and has traded time with J.R. Willing, a freshman.

In the past two seasons, counting last year's experiment with highly touted prep star Ofa Mohetau, who is now redshirting, BYU football has never played so many freshmen on its offensive line. At least not in the past 30 years.

And it showed.

And now, THEY show.

Saturday night, late in the Wyoming game, the offensive line went on a search-and-destroy detail. They did more destroying than searching.

"What they're doing is really progressing," Crowton said.

The Cougar offensive line didn't give up a sack in the Wyoming game. This unit that gave up a million sacks last year as two quarterbacks suffered three broken hands.

Now the Cougars have registered three consecutive rushing outings of 207, 129 and 237 yards. And that middle figure of 129? Well, if not for 67 passes against UNLV, it easily could have been a 200-plus yard deal.

There's a trend since the Cougars got into league play.

"The whole offensive line is getting it together," Crowton said. "We're able to substitute a little bit now. Gary McGiven is playing tackle, and Hanale Vincent is getting better and seeing time. The whole group is understanding."

Offensive lines, in general, play in obscurity. But the past two seasons, the Cougar offensive line never stood out so much. And that hasn't been a good thing.

Over the weekend, these guys felt pretty good about themselves. A little more confident than they'd felt in years.

They're getting called upon, leaned on and depended on.

And they like it.

The single socks are finding themselves unified and in pairs.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com