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‘A lot of pride in that room’: After some challenges early on, offensive line is rising up

Against UCLA, Nick Ford moved from center to left guard and Paul Maile started at center

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Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford celebrates a Utah touchdown against Arizona State, Oct. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford celebrates after TJ Pledger’s touchdown against Arizona State Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Ford and his fellow offensive linemen helped the Utes to 290 yards rushing Saturday vs. the Bruins.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Due to injuries and some instability, Utah’s offensive line experienced struggles early on this season.

But the Utes’ O-line showed up big time in last Saturday’s 44-24 win over UCLA

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Utah (5-3, 4-1)

at Stanford (3-5, 2-4)

Friday, 8:30 p.m. MDT

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TV: FS1

Radio: ESPN 700


Not only did the line protect quarterback Cam Rising — it didn’t give up a single sack — but it also opened big holes for Utah running backs en route to 290 yards rushing. 

“We understood that UCLA is a really good defense, tough against the run. We talked about it all week and I think our kids accepted that challenge,” said offensive line coach Jim Harding. “There’s a lot we have to clean up but in terms of being physical, they were definitely doing that Saturday night.”

Perhaps the O-line’s most noticeable play of the night was Sataoa Laumea’s pancake block on one of Tavion Thomas’ four touchdown runs

“C’mon,” said offensive lineman Nick Ford, “that was a highlight.”

That crushing block was emblematic of Utah’s physical dominance over the Bruins. 

“They’ve been working and it’s starting to show,” said Thomas, who ran for 160 yards. 

How does Rising assess the O-line’s play?

“I think the togetherness that all five guys are playing with, they really have a common goal — that’s to out-physical the other team,” he said. “That’s where they’ve made such big strides. … They did a great job. I love having those guys block for me.”

But that performance came after another injury hit the offensive line and Harding had to, once again, do some shuffling. Left guard Keaton Bills was ruled out. So Harding moved Ford from center to left guard and Paul Maile, who had started only one game in his career, took over at center. 

As coach Kyle Whittingham said, the results speak for themselves. How has he seen the development and improvement of the offensive line this season?

“It’s just hard work and continuing to listen to coach Harding’s coaching. There hasn’t been continuity because we’ve had so much flux in there,” Whittingham said. “There seems to be a lot of different combinations that we’ve used. They have a lot of pride in that room and there’s talent. There are good players in the room. Nick Ford looked really good at guard on Saturday. I think it’s hard work, focus, attention to detail and accepting their coaching.”

Ford wasn’t surprised by what the offensive line did against UCLA.

Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford poses for a portrait at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City.

Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford poses for a portrait at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. Ford was not surprised by the offensive line’s performance in big win over UCLA last Saturday.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“We knew we were fully capable of this. We know a lot of people wrote us off. Now, a lot of people like how we’re playing,” he said. “We’re going to stick to what we’re doing. We’re not looking at the outside and how they view us. We’re all we need in that room.”

During his career at Utah, Ford has played all five positions on the offensive line. So it came as no surprise that he moved from center to left guard seamlessly.

“In terms of football IQ, I could probably think of one other guy that’s on par with him. I say this jokingly but it’s to the point of being annoying. He knows so much. If I misspeak, he has no problem correcting me,” Harding said of Ford. “He’s like another coach on the field. I do believe that he’s suited better for being an inside player but it’s nice to have the luxury of him bouncing outside if we run into injuries or performance issues. But he’s been a huge asset for us through the years.”

Tight end Brant Kuithe is impressed with Ford’s versatility.

“He’s a great football player. He knows all five positions on the line,” he said. “He’s also a terrific leader. No matter what position he plays, he’s going to lead them no matter what. He’s doing a great job.”

How is Ford able to play so many positions so well?

“It’s a combination of repetition. Being in prior situations and rotating around in practice,” he said. “It’s understanding the offensive scheme and offensive plays and knowing everyone’s job on every play.”

“Nick is so talented. He’s played at five positions at some point since he’s been here,” Whittingham said. “That’s a rarity. It’s one thing to play all five. But to play all five at the level that he plays with is pretty impressive.

Maile had a couple of errant snaps but overall, the coaches were thrilled by his play at center. 

“I’d be hard-pressed for me to think of a time when I’ve been prouder of any lineman since I’ve been here. That’s a kid that’s done everything we’ve asked in the program,” Harding said. “He’s busted his tail and waited his time. Especially in the age of the transfer portal, certainly you could see him get frustrated from time to time.

“But he just stuck with it. We’ve got to fix the snaps and there are technique things we’ve got to get better at this week. But I couldn’t be more happy for a kid. It’s really what this program is all about — respect the process, trust it, stay patient. It’s very hard these days. Your number is going to be called eventually in a big-time game … I’m really, really proud of that kid and happy for him.”

Ford also praised Maile’s play.

“Paul did amazing, dude. He had a couple of high snaps. I had a couple of high snaps at the start of the year,” he said. “So if anyone wants to bash on him, look at me.”

The Utes may keep the same starting group on the offensive line Friday (8:30 p.m. MDT, FS1) against Stanford. Whittingham said as far as Bills’ status, it’s a “game-day decision.”

For Harding, it’s gratifying to see his O-line play its best at the most important part of the season.

“There were a lot of injuries early. Now, they’ve gotten into a groove,” he said. “They know what their role is on the offensive line. Everybody’s accepted that. We found out Keaton was going to be down on Monday. I said, ‘Here’s the lineup’ and everybody went with it. From Monday on, they prepared together and we’re ready to go.”

The results speak for themselves.