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Dick Harmon: BYU resets its football foundation in opener with increased physical play by O-line

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Brigham Young Cougars running back Brayden El-Bakri (35) celebrates a Brigham Young Cougars running back Squally Canada (22) touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

Brigham Young Cougars running back Brayden El-Bakri (35) celebrates a Brigham Young Cougars running back Squally Canada (22) touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. BYU’s offensive line dominated Saturday, as the Cougars rushed for 183 yards and three short touchdown runs.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

There’s serious trench work going on inside BYU's football program.

And that’s a big deal.

There’s only a one-game sample, an upset win over Arizona in Tucson last Saturday, but it’s been rumored and talked about for three years since Kalani Sitake took the job. He wanted bigger, stronger linemen, guys he could, should and must recruit and sign.

What we’re seeing is that former LSU lines coach Jeff Grimes, his protégé’ and Auburn national championship ring holder Ryan Pugh and graduate assistant and former NFL player Dallas Reynolds are actually pulling it off.

More and more, BYU looks like it is getting back to its roots of the '80s and '90s with its offensive linemen, the days of the late Roger French where O-linemen were big, strong, really old and quite nasty indeed.

“If we own the line of scrimmage, I’ll be here smiling every week,” Sitake told reporters Monday.

“It’s so nice to get back to smash-mouth football,” said tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau.

“Grimes and Pugh have emphasized all off-season to be physical, be violent and manhandle people,” said tackle Austin Hoyt.

In BYU’s season-opening win over Arizona, there were plenty of talking points. But the standout feature to me was the dominance of the Cougar offensive line.

It was an expected advantage, one BYU will not have against the likes of Wisconsin, Washington and Utah, but it was there pre-kickoff and was confirmed during the game.

Former Cougar lineman Ben Archibald was sold on Saturday’s work when he tweeted out: “Roger French would be proud of this BYU offensive line. Staying on their blocks. Playing with a nasty demeanor. Playing together as a unit.”

Senior Squally Canada scored three touchdowns and packed the ball effectively at the end of the game when the Cougars needed to kill the clock and get first downs. All his touchdown runs were standing up after hitting holes made by Tristen Hoge and Austin Hoyt.

It was dirty work. But work Grimes laid the foundation for during the winter.

All spring and fall, he demanded accountability, execution, passion, and energy and when he didn’t get it, there were penalties.

On Saturday, two redshirt freshmen, tackle Brady Christensen (6-6, 295) and center James Empey (6-4, 297) got their first starts. They’ll encounter tougher times, but their baptism by fire was, by all accounts, big-time successful. They’re inexperienced, but they’re old and mature — and it will drive foes crazy that they’re over 21.

Just like the old days.

The motto should be: Make BYU”s O-line Great and Hated again.

There’s little debate as to the importance of winning the line of scrimmage. It’s where everything meets the road, battles are fought with raw power, strength, athleticism, speed, footwork and a myriad of techniques. But one thing rules over it all: It takes toughness, being nasty. Football is, after all, an organized fight.

This was never more apparent than BYU’s domination on both the offensive and defensive line last Saturday night at Arizona. The Cougars punched Kevin Sumlin’s team hard, right in the chops. It was met with a lot of blinking and surprise. It was not returned with the same effectiveness.

Afterward, Grimes stood apart from where his players were celebrating and congratulating one another, a feeling of pride swelling up inside. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced in my coaching career,” Grimes told BYUtv on his weekly Coordinator’s Corner show.

The reason? Tons of work he said started eight months ago in what he said he’s witnessed a change in culture, change in demeanor in the players, a change in confidence. “That, more than any play or style, means the most to me.”

Grimey ball.

Here’s the bottom line, and it should prove valuable this week against California:

BYU ended last season a battered, injured, football team with a lot of scars. Confidence had been shaken to its core and the fallout from fans and the community weighed heavily inside that locker room and practice field through spring and fall.

For eight months, players wondered when they’d win, when would it come, how would it feel, how would it get done? Could they trust coaches? Could coaches trust the players to work hard when they couldn’t be present and directing things?

Starting 1-0 on the road in Pac-12 territory was a big deal in itself for Sitake’s team. But equal to or even more important was the level of confidence and trust gained in Tucson.

It wouldn’t be out of line to claim the work of the trenchmen, on both sides of BYU’s line, was the biggest part of it.

It’s where football program statements are made.

It was no more apparent than when we saw D-tackle Khyiris Tonga, fighting an Arizona double-team, move both blockers 10 yards backward.

“We aren’t about the glory or getting attention on. It’s just about doing our job,” said Hoyt.

“This is a new team going forward.”