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Captain James Empey expects BYU’s O-line to find impact replacements after 2020

Senior All-Americn center James Empey likes what he sees in his new offensive line coach

BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk directs players during practice
BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk directs players during practice in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

BYU’s center of attention is ready.

James Empey has started at center ever since he came to BYU and was just named to his fifth preseason watch list for awards. The latest is the Rotary Lombardi Trophy. He is a preseason All-American according to Phil Steele and Athlon Sports publications.

Empey is a steady, mature, dependable, soft-spoken leader and team captain. Banged up a bit a year ago, he’s in the best shape of his life, fully healthy and worked in the offseason on his speed and strength both on and off campus.

But Empey is savvy enough to know a football ship doesn’t sail without a crew.

Lombardi?

The ancient football mariner was a quote machine; he spoke words that real football players understand.

Empey knows that language.

Said Lombardi, “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow. Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it. Autograph your work with excellence.”

The things Empey says BYU’s offense needs to do in 2021, the season after losing quarterback Zach Wilson to the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL draft, is put together all the pieces from what returns and is added.

“I think we’ve got the right guys in all the right rooms, and I look forward to us putting the bigger picture together,” said Empey after the first day of practice.

“We need to dial all that down and buckle down all our schemes, especially with some of the new guys.

“We need to make every practice ‘the practice’ and attack everything with a sense of urgency.”

Empey likes his new offensive line coach Darrell Funk, hired to replace Eric Mateos, who left for Baylor with offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.

“He’s awesome,” Empey said of Funk. “He’s a guy who brings a lot of perspective, experience and wisdom to the job. It’s nice that he’s run a similar offense and can step right in and run things we’ve been going. The guys have responded well to him. The guys are soaking it up like a sponge right now, and I look forward to the rest of the camp with him.”

Blake Freeland is expected to start at left tackle in place of departed Brady Christensen. Clark Barrington, also named to the Lombardi Watch List by the Houston Rotary Club, will be left guard. Next to Empey on the other side will be Conner Pay, and Harris LaChance is looking to hold on to the right tackle spot. Joe Tukuafu will see work behind Empey and can play guard. Campbell Barrington, Seth Willis and Brayden Keim are battling for playing time.

The unit is a mix of vets and up-and-comers with size and girth, as designed by Kalani Sitake in 2015.

A year ago, Wilson had a veteran offensive line to work with. Players protecting him had a lot of experience, and left tackle Christensen proved to be one of the best in the country before being drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the third round last spring.

Empey knows that kind of experience is valuable and can’t easily be replaced, but in a 12-game schedule during the 2020 COVID-19 season, a lot of players saw playing time in-game and he believes that will prove valuable in 2021.

“We’ve been blessed with a lot of good leaders the past few years and some of those have moved on to the NFL. There are a lot of good leaders on this team now,” Empey said. “I think the coaches are doing a good job of developing leaders as we’ve gone along, and so I think we have players in the program right now that are ready to fall into that role on this team.

“As long as I’ve been here, it’s good to see guys in our room step up. There are guys doing a lot of good things, and we are trying to do our part to push things along.”

Empey said he personally put a lot of emphasis on getting stronger and faster and taking care of his body better.

“I just really buckled down with our nutritionist and tried to get myself prepared,” he said.

Part of Empey’s offseason workout included working with Dave Stroshine of StroPerformance in Pleasant Grove.

“I did that the early part of this year and then shifted to working with our guys here on campus so I could be sure to be a part of what they are trying to get done as a team,” Empey said.

“I’ve worked with Stroshine since I was in high school, and he is awesome. He knows how to adjust things specifically and tailor workouts to individual needs and get the most out of you. He was a big help for me this offseason along with our strength staff who have done a fantastic job getting us stronger.”

Empey said it is too early to define just how BYU’s offensive line will be this fall because work just began last Thursday.

“We have guys who have experience and some new people, but we still need see how they come along,” he said. “We had some injuries the last couple of seasons and a lot of players were able to step in and get playing time, and I think that is very valuable.”

Empey is emphatic with gratitude that BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe got the Cougars 12 games last season, an effort that propelled some of his teammates to not only notoriety but fame and fortune as NFL camps open and contracts are signed.

That wouldn’t have happened if BYU hadn’t had an 11-1 run and been ranked. Highlight films were created out of a very tough year.

“We were so blessed last year,” Empey said. “What a blessing it was to have last year when people were scrambling and our people were able to get games. We had fun and had a lot of experience and a lot of things to build upon.”

Empey is a team captain and started at center all 34 games of his BYU career. He has been active in Kalani Sitake’s More to Life Foundation and is active in doing community service.

The son of former BYU star lineman and coach Mike Empey, James is solid, and he can’t wait for the pieces to fit together so the line can do the heavy lifting required of it in a far more difficult schedule.

If that lift doesn’t take place, it doesn’t matter who the QB is.