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‘Injury train’ has plowed through BYU’s veteran offensive line, bringing OC Jeff Grimes to the sidelines and young players to the rescue

Four players in the starting rotation have missed significant time due to ailments, but freshmen such as Blake Freeland and Clark Barrington have filled in admirably for BYU’s offense, OL coach Eric Mateos says

SHARE ‘Injury train’ has plowed through BYU’s veteran offensive line, bringing OC Jeff Grimes to the sidelines and young players to the rescue

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Baylor Romney throws a touchdown against the Boise State Broncos during an NCAA football game in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO —  When first-year BYU offensive line coach Eric Mateos was at Arkansas in 2015 as a graduate assistant, all five starters on the Razorbacks’ offensive line played every play of every game, including the 45-23 win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.

“It was just good luck, I guess,” Mateos said.

He obviously didn’t bring his rabbit’s foot to Provo.

After having an Arkansas-like season with few, if any, injuries along the offensive line in 2018 under OL coach Ryan Pugh, who left to become Troy’s offensive coordinator, BYU’s hogs have sustained four major afflictions in 2019.

The Cougars hope to get right guard Tristen Hoge and right tackle Keanu Saleapaga back for Saturday’s showdown at Utah State (8 p.m., ESPN2), while senior Thomas Shoaf is out for the season and junior Kieffer Longson has a foot injury that threatens to sideline him for several more games.

Hoge missed the South Florida and Boise State games due to an undisclosed injury he apparently suffered in practice, while Saleapaga and Shoaf both left the 27-23 loss to the Bulls with lower leg injuries.

“I think that’s just football. It is just one of those years where a guy has something here or there keeping him out,” Mateos said before adding one of his trademark jokes.

The coach said he could come up with a “conspiracy theory” such as “bad cleats or something,” if all the injuries were the same, but they are not.

Sophomores James Empey (center) and Brady Christensen (left tackle) are the only two starters yet to miss a play this season.

“Sometimes you get lucky, like last season, where you don’t have any injuries,” Empey said. “Then sometimes the injury train hits and you get a few guys banged up. I think it is just the luck of the draw, especially with the different things that happen.”

That train rolled into BYU’s offense like a locomotive, knocking out quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall and running backs Ty’Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa for significant amounts of time.

Clark Barrington, a redshirt freshman returned missionary (Uganda) from Spokane, Washington, started in Hoge’s place at right guard against USF and then moved to left guard against Boise State. Chandon Herring moved from his traditional spot at left guard to right guard for the BSU game.

“Injuries are something you expect when you play O-line,” Herring said. “It’s just a little bit of adversity. We will get better from it.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said the big story for the BSU game was how true freshman Blake Freeland stepped in at right tackle to make not only his first college start, but his first-ever start as an offensive lineman. Freeland, 6-foot-8, played quarterback his junior season at Herriman High and tight end his senior season, while also contributing on the Mustangs’ basketball team.

“So, really quite impressive, what Blake was able to do,” Grimes said. “And then Clark getting his second start (was solid) as well. I am pleased with that group and hopefully we will get some help back this week.”

Inexperience along the offensive line is one of the reasons Grimes moved from the press box to the sidelines last game, and he plans to remain there on Saturday in the Battle for the Old Wagon Wheel game in Logan.

“It was a lot of fun,” Grimes said. “I missed being on the field. I felt like I could maybe add a little something down there. When we made the change of (offensive) styles last year I felt like I needed to move up just so I could see a little bit more. We have so many talented, able coaches, it allows me to do that.”

Empey said Grimes’ presence on the sidelines was a positive thing and enabled Mateos to focus on individual instruction where it was needed.

“Coach Grimes, he is kinda like the O-line guru,” Empey said. “He knows a lot of stuff about it. We get another set of ears and eyes out there, close by. But it also helps with the offense because he is good at rallying everybody and getting things going. It was just cool to have his presence there.”

Extra points

Saying the Cougars don’t want to give up any more information than they have to, Grimes and Roderick declined after practice Wednesday to name a starting quarterback for the USU game, Jaren Hall or Baylor Romney. “I don’t see any advantage to announcing it, so we are not going to,” Roderick said. ... Roderick said the choice will be a “staff decision” but he will take the lead because he interacts the most with both players and watches both closely in practice and film study sessions. “I will take the heat,” he said. “It is probably as much my decision as anybody’s.” ... Head coach Kalani Sitake said Monday that season starter Zach Wilson (fractured thumb) is ahead of schedule for his return, and Roderick seconded that notion on Wednesday. “I saw him throwing footballs today, so yeah, he is way ahead of where we thought,” Roderick said. “I don’t know exactly what that means in regards to (a timetable) for his return, but the word I heard was ‘way’ ahead.”

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