Former BYU offensive lineman James Empey has no regrets. If he had a chance to do it all over again, the onetime Freshman All-American says he would take the same path.
That’s saying something, considering Empey might have been selected in the NFL draft if he had left Provo after his sophomore or junior seasons. Now, Empey is leaving after his fourth season at BYU, having made 41 starts at center, and the 25-year-old returned missionary probably won’t be drafted when the player selection meeting commences Thursday in Las Vegas with the first round and runs through Saturday.
Rounds 2 and 3 are Friday, while Rounds 4-7 are Saturday.
“We are just along for the ride. My wife and I are so excited, and we are just ready to go. Things are starting to heat up a little bit with more communication from a few teams, which is fun. A few teams are starting to show some serious interest, so who knows what could really happen? We are just grateful to be a part of it.” — Former BYU center James Empey on his NFL draft prospects
According to most mock drafts, running back Tyler Allgeier will likely be the only BYU player drafted. The other four who participated in pro day last month — Empey, receivers Neil Pau’u and Samson Nacua and defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua — will probably find spots as undrafted free agents or mini-camp invitees.
And that’s totally fine with Empey, who wouldn’t change a thing in regards to his standout career at BYU, or his decision to serve a mission to Lisbon, Portugal, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after signing with Utah out of American Fork High.
Empey’s father, Mike, became BYU’s offensive line coach while he was on his mission, so he switched allegiances when he returned from Portugal.
“My mission gave me some life experiences that I have been able to build upon these last five years at BYU,” he said. “If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it again.”
Because of COVID-19 and the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes affected by the altered 2020-21 seasons, Empey technically could have returned to BYU for another season. But he made the decision to turn pro shortly after the 2021 season ended and declared for the draft on Dec. 20, 2021.
“I want to express my gratitude to all coaches, past and present, football staff, and especially my teammates for believing in me and pushing me to be my best self in all aspect of life,” Empey wrote on Twitter the day he declared.
BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick responded to the news with a heartfelt reply on the same social media website, saying it is “impossible to say how much (Empey) has meant to our program in one tweet.”
Roderick added that “the phrase ‘coach on the field’ can be a cliche that gets used too often, but in this case it is 100% accurate. Great football player. Great leader. Great human being. We will miss you.”
It’s impossible to say how much @JEmpey66 has meant to our program in one tweet. The phrase “coach on the field” can be a cliche that gets used too often but in this case it’s 100% accurate. Great football player. Great leader. Great human being. We will miss you. https://t.co/EIksMZSvKI— Aaron Roderick (@CoachRoderick) December 21, 2021
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe also weighed in, saying Empey was a proven leader and exceptional scholar-athlete and has a very bright future ahead of him.
Will that future include the NFL?
Of the seven recent seven-round mock drafts surveyed by the Deseret News’ Brandon Judd, only Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports had Empey getting selected. Trapasso’s mock draft has the 6-foot-31⁄2, 297-pounder going in the sixth round to Tennessee (204th overall pick).
Allgeier’s name was present in six of the seven mocks, left out only by Chad Reuter of NFL.com.
Empey seemingly had some draft momentum midseason, but suffered a season-ending broken foot in the Cougars’ 21-19 win over Washington State on Oct. 23 and missed the final seven games.
Does he wonder what might have been?
“It is probably a totally normal response to have those feelings,” he said. “But I have tried really hard to control what I can control, and there are things you can’t control and things you can. It is about what I can do in the moment, and nothing else.”
Still, Empey and his wife, Maddie, have been preparing the past four months to make a move to whatever place he’s drafted, or signed as a free agent.
As the #NFLDraft gets closer, take a look at some of @JEmpey66's impressive accomplishments as a Coug 🏈#BYUFOOTBALL | #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/RzGhBe6A7G— BYUtv Sports (@byutvsports) April 26, 2022
“We are just along for the ride,” he said. “My wife and I are so excited, and we are just ready to go. Things are starting to heat up a little bit with more communication from a few teams, which is fun. A few teams are starting to show some serious interest, so who knows what could really happen? We are just grateful to be a part of it.”
Shortly after declaring for the draft, Empey moved to Frisco, Texas, to train at the Sports Academy with offensive line guru Duke Manyweather and speed and explosion coach Les Spellman. He was in Texas when he found out he hadn’t been invited to the NFL combine.
Only 30-40 noncombine invitees are drafted per year — fewer than 10% — according to Utah-based agent Evan Brennan, who doesn’t believe Empey will get drafted but said the center class is not deep this year, so that may help him get a look.
“Yeah, I am expected to play center. I don’t have a ton of experience playing the other spots, because when I got the starting job at center at BYU I just kinda kept it the whole time I was there,” Empey said. “There was no real reason to move me around. However, I do feel like I can learn any position on the O-line and be a valuable asset to a team and do whatever they need me to do.”
When he returned from Texas in February, Empey worked out with Dave Stroshine of Stroformance in Pleasant Grove and prepared for BYU’s pro day.
At pro day, he said he “hit a bunch of my goals” and felt good about his performance. Mostly, he said, it showed scouts that he had fully recovered from the foot injury that cut short his season.
“BYU has played a huge part in my life so far. I feel like we have always done things the right way and just the people here are what make BYU so special,” he said that day. “I am just super grateful for the entire experience, and for making today great and for always taking care of us.”