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Expectations soar for BYU’s veteran offensive line in 2020 after solid, injury-plagued season

Every starter returns along the OL, most notably All-America candidates James Empey at center and Brady Christensen at left tackle, prompting Pro Football Focus to call it the 12th best OL in the country; Only backup tackle Thomas Shoaf is moving on

BYU center James Empey prepares to snap the ball to quarterback Zach Wilson during warmups in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
BYU center James Empey prepares to snap the ball to quarterback Zach Wilson during warmups in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — Injuries kept BYU’s offensive line from completely meeting expectations during the recently completed 2019 football season, and not just setbacks suffered by mainstays Tristen Hoge, Kieffer Longson, Keanu Saleapaga and Thomas Shoaf.

Quarterbacks Zach Wilson, Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney and running backs Ty’Son Williams, Emmanuel Esukpa and Sione Finau also missed significant portions of the season, adding to the offensive disruption.

Still, the offensive line finished up as one of the stronger units on a team that went 7-6 for the second straight season, thanks in part to the depth new offensive line coach Eric Mateos was able to develop throughout the year and the emergence of talented freshmen such as Blake Freeland and Clark Barrington.

“All in all, I feel like the offensive line has performed reasonably well, especially when you consider all we’ve been through,” rising senior offensive guard Chandon Herring said toward the end of the season.

The injuries were sort of unexpected, because in 2018 under first-year OL coach Ryan Pugh, the unit experienced few, if any, injuries. Mateos didn’t bring similar luck with him from previous stops at Arkansas, LSU and Texas State.

“That’s just football,” Mateos said with a shrug in mid-November, while praising his guys for playing through the adversity.

To recap, right guard Hoge (knee), left guard Longson (foot) and backup tackle Shoaf (knee) sustained season-ending injuries, while right tackle Saleapaga (ankle) missed significant playing time.

Mateos was forced to use 16 different combinations of players, but there was marked improvement, according to stats compiled by footballoutsiders.com. The unit allowed the same number of sacks per game as in 2018 (2.23), but the Cougars rushed for 4.45 yards per carry in 2019 as opposed to 4.12 in 2018.

The Cougars had 81 rushing plays of 10-plus yards in 2019, as opposed to 59 the previous year. They had eight alone in the bowl game.

There was some fear that Hoge might call it a career, but the rising senior announced shortly after the 38-34 loss to Hawaii in the bowl game that he will be back for his final season of eligibility.

“I want to finish what I came here for,” the Notre Dame transfer told The Daily Universe. “I figured there is no better place and people that I would want to do that with than the brothers that I have formed bonds with here.”

Looking ahead to 2020

Hoge’s healthy return, combined with the returns of two-year starters Brady Christensen and James Empey, promising right tackle Freeland and Herring and Saleapaga, means offensive line should be another team strength in 2020, perhaps even its biggest strength.

Also expected to return are Barrington, backup right tackle Harris LaChance and sophomore Caden Haws, Empey’s capable backup. Morris Unutoa, a transfer from Utah, will be eligible after sitting out in 2019.

Pro Football Focus graded every offensive line in college football last season and ranked BYU as the 12th best. Christensen was BYU’s highest-rated offensive lineman, garnering an 86.9.

Every starter returns, which Mateos noted on his Twitter account by saying “Hi Haters! Love these boys. Time to grind for a great 2020.”

The website, which has Oregon as its top offensive line in 2019, praised BYU’s line for adjusting to the use of multiple quarterbacks.

“Led by Christensen, a star in the making, their starting left tackle ranked fifth in pass-blocking grade among all tackles this year,” PFF said.

In December, BYU announced the nine mid-year January additions, players who have already enrolled in classes this month, and the group includes two offensive linemen. Seth Willis, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound returned missionary from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Andrew Slack, a former Springville High football and basketball star who signed with Weber State before a church mission, will be available for spring ball.

The Cougars also signed high schooler Isaiah Tupou of Sacramento, California, in December, but the 6-3, 315-pounder is expected to go on a church mission before enrolling.

BYU’s projected starting offensive line in 2020

Left tackle: Brady Christensen, Jr., 6-6, 295

Left guard: Keanu Saleapaga, Jr., 6-6, 310

Center: James Empey, Jr., 6-4, 300

Right guard: Tristen Hoge, Sr., 6-5, 310

Right tackle: Blake Freeland, Soph., 6-8, 285

Key backups: Kieffer Longson, Chandon Herring, Mo Unutoa, Clark Barrington, Caden Haws, Harris LaChance