PROVO — Perhaps the best news for a BYU team that is breaking in a new quarterback can be summed up in two words: offensive line.

The Cougar o-line features a wealth of experience and depth. Sophomore quarterback Max Hall, who has never taken a Division I snap, understands the importance of that fact.

"I'm very, very confident in our offensive line," Hall said. "They're big, huge studs. Those guys are going to be the reason we're successful on offense this year."

Senior center Sete Aulai knows that importance, too.

"We are the strength of this team," he said. "We do have the most depth and we try to set the tone for the offense. We're building on experience right now."

Hall can't be expected to perform like the man he's replacing, John Beck, but Aulai said the offensive line will be a huge benefit in his development.

"He won't be as good as John was last year. But he'll get there sooner than John did. It helps him to have us in front of him. I told Max, 'Don't worry about anything because I've got you. I'm reading the defense, too. I told him to put his trust in us and we'll protect you."

Offensive line coach Mark Weber, who joined the program earlier this year when Jeff Grimes departed for Colorado, is pleased with the linemen in the program.

"It's a very good group. Potentially, they can be the best group I've worked with, top to bottom," Weber said. "The group that I would compare them to would be the UCLA 1997-98 offensive line. Those two years we won 20 games in a row and were ranked high in the BCS. We would have played for the national championship had we beaten Miami in that rescheduled game. We played in the 1999 Rose Bowl. We had some very good players there. We had an All-America one year (Logan Mankins) and an Outland Trophy winner (Kris Farris) the next. That's pretty good company."

Along with Aulai, Dallas Reynolds, Ray Feinga, Travis Bright, David Oswald and R.J. Willing comprise what could be BYU's best offensive line in years.

Asked to describe the personality of the o-line, Weber said: "They're very committed. They're aggressive. You get guys sometimes who are out there playing football and then you get guys who are into it. These guys are into it. That makes them very coachable. They have talent to go along with all that."

The Cougar defensive players say BYU's o-line is as good as advertised.

"There's not a weak one in the group," said defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen. "They make us better facing them every day in practice. They're hard workers."

"They're going to roll people over when we start playing," said linebacker Bryan Kehl.

PRACTICE CHANGE: Coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff decided to cancel Wednesday's scheduled scrimmage. The Cougars will hold a practice that day instead.

"The thought is, I know who can play and I think our team is relatively healthy at some spots," he said. "We can gain some momentum at a few other spots. I didn't think the risk was worth it at this point, with as much team work as we're getting in practice. I'm comfortable with their mindset. I need to protect them healthwise."

Also, Mendenhall canceled Thursday's practice.

"It will give the coaches a chance to spend the entire day refamiliarizing themselves with Arizona, knowing that Friday will be our first Arizona practice," Mendenhall explained. "It will be a nice chance for the players to take care of whatever loose ends they need before they come back on Friday."

The Cougars will hold a team function Thursday night, Mendenhall said.

CORNER POCKET: Kayle Buchanan and Brandon Howard are still battling for the starting field cornerback spot.

"I think it's still very, very close," Mendenhall said. "Kayle's consistency in terms of the entire game is a little better. But Brandon's cover ability is really impressive right now. Kayle's full game is just slightly ahead, but it's very close."

NOT ANOTHER: Starting inside linebacker Kelly Poppinga went down to an ankle injury in Monday's afternoon practice. He threw his helmet down in disgust, and many on the team hesitated as he was examined by head trainer Kevin Morris. Both outside linebackers Bryan Kehl and David Nixon stood by as Poppinga was carted off the field for X-rays.

"It appears he got stepped on, took a cleat to the foot," said Mendenhall. The X-ray showed no fracture, but it is bruised."

NOTES: Attendance for the final open practice of fall camp was 680 ... Running back Manase Tonga missed Monday morning's practice session to meet with the Honor Code Office related to his offseason legal issues.

During 11-on-11 drills, the offense did not find the end zone. In five drives, the defense ruled. Same thing happened when the Cougars worked on overtime situations. The final play of practice saw cornerback Andre Saulsberry intercept a pass by Brenden Gaskins in the end zone. The pass was intended for freshman wide receiver Jordan Smith.

Backup kicker Brian Smith did both the punting and placekicking again Monday because kicker Mitch Payne is still out with tendinitis. Meanwhile, punter C.J. Santiago did not participate in practice because the team is waiting for documents that verify his graduation.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com