What BYU’s new offensive line coach sees in group he inherited from Baylor-bound OL builder Eric Mateos
Cougars have some experience and talent along the offensive line as they try to replace standouts Brady Christensen, Tristen Hoge and Chandon Herring
Rumors of the demise of the BYU football team’s offensive line in 2021 have been greatly exaggerated.
That, in a nutshell, is the message being delivered by new OL coach Darrell Funk, who told the Deseret News recently for this series previewing the Cougars’ position groups next season that early indications are that his group is capable of protecting whichever quarterback replaces Zach Wilson and opening holes for blossoming star running back Tyler Allgeier.
Of course, BYU is trying to replace three offensive line stalwarts who have moved on to the NFL — Brady Christensen, Tristen Hoge and Chandon Herring — and versatile but injury-plagued veteran Kieffer Longson.
Back are three starters — center James Empey, left guard Clark Barrington and tackle Blake Freeland — and several others who saw significant time last season: guard Connor Pay, center/guard Joe Tukuafu and tackle Harris LaChance.
“They had a great spring. They didn’t act entitled or act like everything is going to happen again like it did last year without a lot of hard work. I was impressed with their effort. We also have some up-and-coming young guys that haven’t played yet.” — New BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk
“I feel really good about them,” Funk said. “It is a good group of young men who have worked hard. We have a bunch of really good players that have come back and that have played a lot of football.”
Funk, who has more than 30 years of coaching under his belt and has worked at Power Five programs such as Michigan and Purdue, said he’s been encouraged by the group’s maturity level and experience.
“They had a great spring. They didn’t act entitled or act like everything is going to happen again like it did last year without a lot of hard work, he said. “I was impressed with their effort. We also have some up-and-coming young guys that haven’t played yet.”
More concern arose during spring camp when head coach Kalani Sitake said one of the reasons BYU wasn’t having a spring game was that it lacked healthy bodies along the offensive and defensive lines to stage a full game.
Without divulging names, Funk said some minor health issues on the offensive line “contributed to that,” but it went beyond just his position group. He said he doesn’t anticipate any health issues, or lingering injuries, once preseason training camp begins in early August.
Funk, who played at Colorado State, said the numbers remain strong, with a healthy mix of scholarship guys, returned missionaries and walk-ons.
“I have never met an O-line coach who didn’t wish he had one more experienced guy, or one more guy. That’s just how we are wired,” he said. “But I feel very good going into the fall with this group. Some young guys who haven’t seen the field yet are really pushing, too, and they are having a good start to the summer as well.”
One big question is who will replace the aforementioned Christensen, who was drafted 70th overall by the Carolina Panthers in the third round, as the blindside protector for starting QB candidates Baylor Romney, Jaren Hall, Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters.
Funk said it will likely be either the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Freeland or the 6-8, 310-pound LaChance, but a final decision has not been made.
“It kinda depends on how we decide to go,” he said. “Both have played there. Blake has played a lot more on the right side. Harris has played on both. We will see how that shakes out, but to me, they are both very capable and either of those guys could fill that role.”
Rising senior James Empey, a three-year starter, can be inked-in as the starting center. When Empey sprained an ankle last year, his backup was Tukuafu, who missed spring camp for undisclosed reasons. Beyond those two, the job would likely fall to Pay, the freshman who did surprisingly well at the end of the season in various roles.
“Connor Pay didn’t start any games, but he played very well in the bowl game when he had to come in, and play center,” Funk said. “He hadn’t even practiced that much in bowl practice, but didn’t miss a beat.”
Pay, son of former BYU standout lineman Garry Pay, is probably the heir apparent to Hoge at a guard spot opposite Barrington.
Funk said Utah transfer Mo Unutoa is “working through some things” and not currently in the mix to be in the two-deep. Another lineman with some experience — junior Keanu Saleapaga — is still working his way back into consideration for playing time after lingering injuries.
Saleapaga got some starts in 2018 and 2019, but only appeared in one game last year, the 52-14 win over Texas State.
“We have a little versatility, which should help,” Funk said. “We definitely will have some competition going (for starting spots), because I truthfully couldn’t tell you who the five starters would be today.
“And then you add these other guys coming in, the young guys that haven’t played yet, and even some new guys who are going to be on campus, and think we have some really good things going,” he continued.
Funk said Alta High product Brayden Keim is another big, tall tackle (6-8) to keep an eye on.
“He got a lot of good reps this spring and is one that we are going to be talking a lot about down the road, or in the near future, as well,” Funk said.
Returned missionary Seth Willis of Newton, Connecticut, Weber High product Tysen Lewis, coming off an injury, and recently returned missionary Campbell Barrington — Clark’s brother — will also push for playing time.
“Campbell Barrington opened my eyes in the spring,” Funk said. “I thought he did some really good things and is getting better every day.”
BYU’s spring roster also included converted tight end Donovan Hanna, walk-ons Chandler Bird and Burke Parker and Mufi Hunt, a transfer from Michigan State and the University of Utah.
“We have some options,” Funk said.
Certainly, a lot more than has been rumored.