It is way too early to start making any proclamations about where this season’s offensive line ranks in BYU history.

Let’s watch the unit perform in games against top-flight competition — as will happen the second week against Baylor, the third week against Oregon, and the sixth week against Notre Dame — before we make any bombastic statements about best-ever, or one of the best, or such.

Those have been the words of head coach Kalani Sitake, offensive line coach Darrell Funk and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick throughout preseason training camp, even as some position coaches have piled praise on their groups.

“We talk to them about this all the time. Just because (moments of domination) happened last year doesn’t mean it will happen again this year. You gotta start from square one again.” — BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk

“We talk to them about this all the time,” Funk said at BYU football media day in June. “Just because (moments of domination) happened last year doesn’t mean it will happen again this year. You gotta start from square one again.”

The Cougars’ offensive line from 2021 lost only one starter, center James Empey, and he didn’t play much the last half of the season, due to injury. Preseason accolades for individual players and the unit as a whole have poured in all summer, hype that former OL coach Eric Mateos used to refer to as “poison” and was constantly reminding his guys to avoid.

Funk has taken that same approach.

“We are going to have to evolve and do some different things, because we are going to have more of a target on (our) back,” Funk said.

That was a couple months ago. After three weeks of camp, Funk said the group is off to a “good, solid start.”

Nothing more, nothing less.

“A lot of work to do. The old coach-speak cliché,” he said. “But it is true. We have been pretty fast with installing plays. So as we get around to talking about the plays a second time, and a third time, it will get better.”

Funk said last week that he would feel comfortable starting up to eight different players on his O-line if the season were to start tomorrow.

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“That is with nine, 10 and 11 being real solid,” he said. “You usually travel 11 (offensive linemen). The up-and-comers we feel we can get ready by the third or fourth game. But eight (right now).”

The O-line’s two-deep chart will be released next week as the Cougars embark on game week for the opener Sept. 3 at South Florida. Funk and Sitake have said that the Cougars will likely play up to eight offensive linemen in the opener, partly because they are that deep there, but also because of the humidity and heat that can sap energy quickly.

“If I was a betting man, that is what I would say will happen,” Funk said. “We just have too many good players that have played and know what they are doing (to not). We will be pretty polished by then. Normally, I don’t like to sub a lot, just because you get that continuity with a group and different things. But if they are deserving and there is no drop-off, we will rotate.”

Starters on the left side of the line are easy to predict, because both have received tons of preseason accolades. Pencil junior Blake Freeland, already a three-year starter, in at left tackle. Another potential NFL draft pick, Clark Barrington, has the left guard spot locked down. You can use a Sharpie for that one.

“Clark will be hard to unseat at that left guard spot,” Funk said. “But the others, it depends on the day, who has the lead.”

Sophomore Connor Pay and sixth-year senior Joe Tukuafu have battled since the season ended for the starting center spot. Pay probably gets the starting nod, based on how well he filled in for Empey last season.

The right side is more difficult to call. Right guard probably comes down to a draw between Tukuafu (assuming Pay is the starting center) and sophomore Campbell Barrington, who started in six games last year and was named a Freshman All-American by the Maxwell Football Club. We will give the nod to “Big Joe.” There’s a reason the former tight end returned this season, and it wasn’t to watch from the sidelines.

At right tackle, junior Harris LaChance enters his fifth year and was seemingly headed toward earning the spot after starting in four games last year before injuries derailed his season. But when a former five-star recruit transfers in from Oregon, as freshman Kingsley Suamataia did, you have to start him, don’t you?

Other candidates for starting spots and/or significant playing time are converted tight end Ben Ward, fourth-year sophomore Brayden Keim, sophomore Tyler Little, Arizona State transfer Sione Veikoso and Snow College transfer Lisala Tai, who was a late entry to camp and could be a bit behind the others in terms of readiness level.

“Those seven guys that were here (last year) and Kingsley have done what I expected them to do so far,” Funk said. “Tyler Little has had a really good offseason. He is bigger and stronger. But he’s got to figure some things out. Sione Veikoso is new, but he is picking it up.”

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Funk said Ward “has come out of nowhere because he was hurt last year” and is “probably the third center type of situation, is going to add some depth there.”

Campbell Barrington can play every position, including center. Pay could also play tackle or guard, if need be, Funk said.

“We just have to train as if we have two or three or four guys out, and then sometimes that happens,” Funk said.

What is Funk, in his second year in Provo, really like?

“I think best way to describe it is he knows when to be fiery. He is very cool and collected. We know that he understands what he expects from us. So we are going to hold ourselves to that higher standard, and when we do fall short, he does speak up and he will get on us. It is a good balance, too,” Clark Barrington said.

Here’s more on what Funk had to say about five of his top offensive linemen at media day in June:

Left tackle Blake Freeland 

Freeland is considered a “baby” in the offensive line world, Funk said, because he didn’t play the position in high school, instead getting time as a quarterback, tight end and outside linebacker. He was recruited to BYU as a defensive end.

“Blake is a great kid. He is well-grounded. He knows that he has got to get better in all areas. His weight room strength, his field strength (can improve),” Funk said. 

BYU offensive lineman Blake Freeland poses for a portrait at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“Just thinking back to when I first got here, we made a few adjustments to his pass protection and his hands. That worked out well. I think he gave up only one sack last year, whatever it was. So that was better. I thought his run blocking got better, because he had been on the right side the year before. You don’t just automatically go to the other side and dominate. You can do it fairly quickly, but it still takes a little time. As he went through the year, I thought his run blocking got better and better.

“I would say without exception that Blake is super talented,” Funk continued. “Obviously he has got a bright future. But he is also super dialed in on what we are doing. … With him, only being in his third, maybe fourth year of playing O-line, he has got a huge upside.”

Left guard Clark Barrington

A fifth-year junior from Spokane, Washington, Barrington has made several preseason All-America first teams, including notations from the Action Network and Phil Steele.

“Well, he is super tough, for one thing. I have not been around a tougher kid than Clark,” Funk said. “And he has got good numbers in the weight room and has field strength, which to me is even more important than what they do in the weight room. It is related. He is super smart. 

“Does he want to play in the League? Absolutely,” Funk continued. “But he doesn’t make his daily work with BYU football and this season and everything about anything else than just that. He knows his chance will come in the League. He is focused and mature beyond his years.”

BYU offensive lineman Clark Barrington poses for a portrait at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Funk said Barrington has replaced Empey as the leader in the OL room.

“He does things the right way in everything he does. He’s a great student. He does things exactly right when it comes to team functions. … He is to me the true leader of the group, if you look at his whole body of work. Not only the starts, abut how he conducts business. I couldn’t be happier to have him in the room.”

Center Connor Pay

The son of former BYU OL great Garry Pay (1986, 1989-92) has been solid since getting playing time as a freshman in 2020.

BYU receiver Neil Pau’u, left, celebrates his touchdown against UCF with offensive lineman Connor Pay during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“He came in and filled in admirably for James Empey. We did miss James, but Connor came in and really did a good job. … Connor is another one, every time you turn around, he is a little quicker, or he has learned a different skill. He is really smart, so he knows the football end of stuff. Connor had a good offseason,” Funk said.

Versatile OL Campbell Barrington

The younger brother of All-American Clark Barrington is known for his versatility, Funk said.

“I tell kids that are versatile that they are are extremely valuable,” Funk said. “Campbell can play anything. He actually can play center, has played center, too. He has played everything in practice. It is a godsend for a coach. It can be a detriment to the kid. Because you can get watered down a little bit. Now — once he finds his starting spot — whatever that will be, he will be great at it.”

BYU offensive lineman Campbell Barrington looks to block during a game against Virginia Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Provo, Utah. | George Frey, Associated Press

Funk said Campbell Barrington had an “unbelievable summer a year ago,” and went from a borderline travel player to a starter at the end of the 2021 season. 

“Campbell did a great job filling in when (Harris LaChance) went down, and I have said this: He is the same as Clark in his preparation, his maturity. He is just not as big and strong and experienced yet,” Funk said. “But he may be a hard one to keep out of the lineup, right from the jump. I think he is one to watch, because he is so smart. Once he gets his spot, he is going to be an unbelievable player.”

Veteran OL Joe Tukuafu

Entering his sixth season in the program, Tukuafu has battled injuries and a position change to become a valuable leader, Funk said.

“When Joe is at the top of his game, he is clearly a guy that would be a really good starter. He ended up doing a really good job down the stretch at guard last year. He plays center, too. Joe is really athletic. He plays with energy. He plays with aggression. He’s kinda got a little mean streak to him. But yeah, I was glad he came back. It would have been easy for him to say, well, I am getting older, I’m moving on.”

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Funk said some returned missionaries think their NFL window might be closing because of their age, but some scouts he has talked to have said the prime age for an NFL offensive lineman is 27 to 29. 

“So to me, I think he made a great decision. I was happy. I try to be not too much of an influence on guys, unless it is clearly obvious. Taylor (Lewan) came back for his senior year (at Michigan). And it didn’t turn out to be a great decision. He was a captain. We did not have a great year. He wanted to win the Big Ten title. That part didn’t work out. But he improved from a mid-to-late first rounder to the 11th pick overall. So he didn’t hurt himself that way.”

Funk said Tukuafu has maintained a great attitude through it all.

“Last year, he got off to a slow start because he got nicked in camp a little bit. So the Arizona game he wasn’t a full go,” Funk said. “I think Connor (Pay) started and I just subbed him. With Joe, I like his energy and I like the way he plays the game.”

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