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Why the ‘clock is ticking’ on the Utes’ O-line

After a sluggish start to the 2021 season, the Utah offensive line got its act together and played admirably the rest of the way. A slow start in the opener vs. Florida would be a problem.

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Members of the Utah offensive line huddle up during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Members of the Utah offensive line huddle up during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Despite a lack of upperclassmen, the Utes’ O-line is surprisingly experienced.

Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics

Certainly, throughout the program, there’s been a sense of urgency during Utah’s fall camp practices.

For offensive line coach Jim Harding, that urgency is heightened.

His O-line struggled during the first three games last season, and the Utes opened with a disappointing 1-2 record. After that, the offensive line stabilized and found its groove and helped Utah win nine of its next 10 games.

With a season opener at Florida, Harding knows his O-line needs to hit the ground running — even though the Utes have lost two starters to the NFL — Nick Ford and Bamidele Olaseni.

Harding admits he was frustrated by how the O-line played from the outset of the season. 

“I understand that my guys didn’t perform the way they should have early in the year. I accept that and I have learned from it,” he said. “We are certainly more conscientious of making decisions and rolling with it early in camp. … We know the challenge we have in front of us. We recognize where we’re going.

“This is a different opener than we’ve had in years’ past. We know the clock’s ticking. We know we need to be ready to go. … I’m well-aware of how we’ve started in the past and the importance of starting quickly.”

Meanwhile, Harding is optimistic about the depth and talent he has on the O-line. 

“I feel confident with eight players that we could line up with on Sept. 3. Certainly, some of those guys have varying levels of experience and so you’re not exactly sure how they’re going to respond in the environment we’ll be in,” he said. “However, in terms of their skillset, their ability level and my comfort with them, we have eight guys. And I would say those eight guys are the ones we’re going to roll with.”

The Utes have considerable experience at some positions on the line, but are lacking at others. 

“The crazy thing is, we have no seniors in the room. That certainly is different from any other time,” Harding said. “A lot of that has to do with COVID and the extra year. If you look at the amount of starts that we have, I think it’s up there in terms of most experience. It is weird to say we have a ton of experience but yet no seniors and only three juniors. The rest are sophomores and freshmen.”

Braeden Daniels takes over at left tackle for Olaseni after playing right tackle in 2021. Paul Maile is expected to be the center after Ford’s departure. And Sataoa Laumea figures to be the starter at right guard.

At left guard and right tackle spots, there’s been a spirited competition. Keaton Bills and Michael Mokofisi are battling at left guard.

“When he came in last year, he did such a good job,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said of Mokofisi. “He’s so athletic and he had a good spring. Keaton Bills has a ton of reps under his belt. A road-grader type of guard. We’re in a good situation there in terms of depth on the offensive line. It’s a competitive situation and we’ll be better for it.”

Meanwhile, Jaren Kump and Falcon Kaumatule are competing at right tackle. Kump suffered an injury last September and he didn’t participate in spring practices because he was still recovering.

“He’s rusty. He’s had 10 practices in the last 10 months, and those 10 practices have been since we got back,” Harding said of Kump. “The kid has a high care factor and a great work ethic. He’s in that top eight and pushing for the top five. He is knocking that rust off. He’s doing everything he can to get up to speed.”

Kaumatule is another tackle that needs experience. 

“He’s certainly in that group of eight. He’s competing for the top five. He’s never played in a game,” Harding said. “How would he respond in that environment in game one? He’s a tough kid and he’s done everything we’ve asked.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s confident about the O-line’s potential.

“It’s coming along. It’s not a situation where we’re looking for someone who can get it done,” he said. “We’ve got several guys that can get it done. We’re just trying to see who is the guy that takes ownership of those positions.”

“Solid. A good combination of guys,” Ludwig said of the line. “A couple of spots still up for grabs. They’re grinding their way through it. It’s a very competitive situation. I think it’s bringing out the best in the Utes.”

Daniels is eager for the O-line to show what it can accomplish. 

“We have a lot of talent on the offensive line. We have a lot of young guys that are ready to work and do whatever it takes to make the team better,” he said. “We’re still working, we’re still in the film room, we’re still in the weight room. We’re still trying to get better each and every day and we have goals that we want to achieve.”


Members of the Utah offensive line get in some work during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics