Cougars have a new RB1 for Arkansas; are changes in store for the offensive line, too?
Offensive line coach Darrell Funk says he’s ‘established five starters,’ but there are signs that could change
The depth chart BYU released Monday shows UNLV transfer Aidan Robbins as the Cougars’ starting running back for Arkansas this week, followed by Colorado transfer Deion Smith and true freshman LJ Martin.
But offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick defied that listing when he spoke to reporters Wednesday after practice, saying the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Martin will be RB1 in Fayetteville on Saturday (5:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) when BYU (2-0) goes after a measure of revenge against the Razorbacks (2-0).
“When we did those ‘ors’ two weeks before the first game, that wasn’t smoke and mirrors. That was real. We weren’t sure, because everything was pretty close.” — BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk on the Cougars’ offensive line depth chart
So take this next sentence with a grain of salt: Offensive line coach Darrell Funk told the Deseret News on Wednesday that the five guys listed as starters on the offensive line depth chart are “our established five starters” for Saturday’s game.
So it is going to be the same five who started in the first two games, apparently: left tackle Kingsley Suamataia, left guard Weylin Lapuaho, center Paul Maile, right guard Connor Pay and right tackle Caleb Etienne.
Or is it?
Insiders who have watched practice this week have said they wouldn’t be surprised if there are some changes; in particular, Missouri State transfer Ian Fitzgerald and towering redshirt junior Brayden Keim, all 6-foot-9 of him, have done their share of running with the ones.
“Keim is right there (behind the starting five),” Funk acknowledged. “He got some nice work last week (against Sam Houston) in place of Kingsley, and he is getting better. Ian Fitzgerald I think is ready to play. We have got some other guys, too. But right now, that’s the five.”
Suamataia was replaced a couple times by Keim, but Funk said the All-America candidate is “fine” and “good” after having a “soft tissue deal, a type of bruise thing” that took him off the field for a couple of series.
The irony to this little mystery over who will start is that Funk removed the ‘ors’ designation on the depth chart this week in four places: left guard, center, right guard and right tackle.
“When we did those ‘ors’ two weeks before the first game, that wasn’t smoke and mirrors,” Funk said. “That was real. We weren’t sure, because everything was pretty close.”
What is more clear after two games is that the unit is good in the pass-protection department, but needs work, or some personnel changes, perhaps, in the run-blocking department. Then again, it would be noted — as Roderick has done several times this week — that Southern Utah played both its safeties within seven yards of the line of scrimmage and dared BYU to abandon the run and throw the ball, which the Cougars did for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
The Cougars ran for just 46 yards on 23 carries on the Thunderbirds. On the flip side, quarterback Kedon Slovis wasn’t sacked, and was hit just once, resulting in an interception.
“We gotta be better. We know that. We are committed to it. We got some of the movement stuff and different things we saw in the first two games, we didn’t handle very well,” Funk said. “We missed some opportunities at times to hit some runs early in the game and didn’t. The low safeties and all that, we don’t want to make any excuses.”
Pay, a 6-5, 305-pound junior who has gone from playing center to playing right guard this season, concurred.
“I feel like we’ve protected well. We have kept Kedon (Slovis) clean, for the most part,” he said. “The run game obviously needs to improve. There are a lot of factors to that. We are getting better every day and making adjustments and improving there.”
Pay then reminded reporters that the Cougars “are not idiots” and went heavy on the passing game “to throw for 400 on you, and four touchdowns, whatever it was,” because SUU loaded the box in an all-out attempt to stop the run.
“But I guess we are just an OK team, though,” Pay said sarcastically, an obvious reference to SUU coach DeLane Fitzgerald’s not-so-complimentary comments about the Cougars after the 41-16 pounding that the coach said would have been closer if not for special teams play.
Back to more pressing issues for the Cougars: A run game that has produced just 2.8 yards per carry.
How can that be improved, from the offensive line’s perspective?
“I think it is the chemistry between guys that haven’t played together, learning how to combo (block), learning how to make calls and help each other,” Funk said. “You know, we just gotta jell. I think we made big strides this week on that note, because we know Arkansas is really good. We played a lot of those guys last year, so we know what we were able to do last year. So I think that’s the biggest thing.”
During that same answer, however, Funk interjected this: “Even though I really like our (starting) players, we have got four or five guys behind those guys that I think are really good to go into the game.”
So maybe that’s a hint.
Etienne, the Oklahoma State transfer, has gotten off to a slow start “in terms of some things,” Funk said, noting that the 6-8, 330-pound redshirt junior is new and has had three different offensive line coaches in college so far.
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“He needs to play faster, as do several other guys, and he will,” Funk said. “He is such a big man, and such a hard obstacle to go around, if we just keep him from creating self-inflicted wounds I think he will be just fine.”
Roderick quickly pointed out that it takes an entire offense to make a running game click, not just the offensive line.
“We are really confident we can (run) against a team that doesn’t want to back up,” Roderick said. “We need to get better, and run harder and break tackles. We need to block better at all 11 positions and coach better. It is a team thing. The run game is an 11-man deal.”
The OC said the Cougars scored 41 points on 55 plays.
“That’s good,” he said. “There is going to be another game here soon where somebody takes away the pass and dares us to run it. That’s when we gotta prove that we can run it.”