Things didn’t start well for Utah’s offensive line in 2021, but by the end of the season, the O-line was one of the strengths of the team that won the Pac-12 championship.
Offensive line coach Jim Harding knows that going into the 2022 campaign, having a cohesive, consistent group in the trenches right away is a top priority, especially with the season opener against Florida of the SEC on Sept. 3 in Gainesville.
“I recognize that we didn’t play very well early on in the year up front. A lot of that had to do with shuffling guys around. It’s going to be important to get those guys in place right away,” said Harding. “We recognize the first game we have this year. The sooner we can get those five guys playing together, getting used to each other, will only make us better in the long run.”
What did left tackle Braeden Daniels learn from last season?
“What I want to take from last year is, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” he said. “Coach Harding and all of us evaluated ourselves and looked in the mirror. We looked at what the problem was and what we needed to fix. That’s something we need to do this year. We know we have Florida in our first game. That’s something we’re looking forward to.”
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig liked what he saw from the O-line during spring practices.
“It’s starting to solidify with the first and second teams, trying to develop that continuity, which was such a big part of our midseason push,” he said. “We had the same five guys playing most of the time. We’re trying to focus on that moving forward.”
Utah’s coaches like the depth they have on the O-line, despite losing center Nick Ford and left tackle Bamidele Olaseni.
“We’ve got a lot of good young offensive linemen in the program,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We did lose our left tackle, Bam Olaseni, and Nick Ford, who played such good football for us. We do have a lot of talent and the depth is solid along the offensive line. That’s what we coaches do, develop the talent. I’m sure Jim Harding will do a good job of that.”
Whittingham added that left guards Keaton Bills and Michael Mokofisi “played their best football this spring … they’re absolutely ready to play for us.”
Center Paul Maile and tackle Jaren Kump missed spring practices due to injuries, but both are expected to be ready this fall.
“Johnny Maea did a nice job moving to center and is starting to solidify that position. Braeden Daniels has solidified himself at left tackle,” Whittingham said. “Falcon (Kaumatule) had a really good spring at right tackle. Jaren Kump will be back this fall. That’s a position he’s played. We feel like we’ll have 10 quality guys with a couple of guys extra that are going to continue to develop.”
Others in the mix include Sataoa Laumea and Zereoue Williams.
Kaumatule, a sophomore, has made big strides since he joined the program.
“Falcon is a guy that had never played O-line before he got here. He only played D-end and a little bit of tight end. So he’s gotten better every single year,” Harding said. “This spring, he’s gotten a lot more reps. There’s not the same mistake over and over.
“There’s an experience level there that he’s seeing something and he’s reacting faster. He’s got really good strength numbers in the weight room. It’s never been a physical issue. It’s just been an experience deficit. This spring, he’s done a nice job putting things together.”
Harding is optimistic about Kump’s development.
“Jaren has battled two pretty significant injuries. He’s still out doing anything he can. He’s got a great attitude and he’s busting his tail. He’s a guy that will be in the mix somewhere. Where? I don’t know,” he said. “That piece of the puzzle is something that we have to solve right away. But in terms of his attitude and his work ethic, he’s tremendous. He’s a great kid. He’s going to bust his butt to put himself in position to be a factor this fall.”
Harding said spring ball was a good starting point but there’s a lot to do during what remains of the offseason.
“It’s been a lot of really good competition. I think the kids are getting better but there are certainly some things that we need to do to get better and things that hopefully we can improve on … throughout the summer.”
For Harding, it’s all about consistency — starting with the season opener.
“The guys we have currently, we’ve played in the same position the majority of the spring,” he said. “We will have the addition of two guys, Jaren and Paul, that will be thrown into that equation. The goal is to get those guys in place right away.”