PROVO — Through three games this season, BYU’s quarterbacks — be they starter Zach Wilson or backups Baylor Romney and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, have not been hit in the pocket this season, let alone sacked.
Obviously a lot of credit has to go to the Cougars’ offensive line. That the offensive line has protected the quarterbacks perfectly is even more remarkable considering it has been down a couple starters the past few games.
In last Friday’s 45-14 win over Louisiana Tech, converted tight end Joe Tukuafu filled in for injured preseason All-America candidate James Empey at center and didn’t miss a beat.
“I am really, really pleased with what Joe did,” offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Wednesday night in a Zoom meeting with reporters. “He has grown so much as a person and a player the last couple of years. I have seen him through his ups and downs. For him to step in at that moment was a big deal.”
“I am really, really pleased with what Joe did. He has grown so much as a person and a player the last couple of years. I have seen him through his ups and downs. For him to step in at that moment was a big deal.” — BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes
The other starter who has been out is senior right guard Tristen Hoge, who contracted COVID-19 and then, a day after returning to practice for the first time in two weeks, was diagnosed with pneumonia. Grimes said that Hoge and Empey — who watched the La Tech game from the sidelines with a protective boot on his right foot — are both “questionable” for Saturday’s game against Texas-San Antonio (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“Yeah, I think they are both in different situations,” Grimes said. “Obviously, I don’t make those decisions. It sounds like to me that James is probably a little closer than Tree. But I think they are both in the position where they are continuing to improve and being tested and monitored every day.”
Senior Chandon Herring and sophomore Blake Freeland have played right guard in Howe’s absence the past two games.
Hoge was actually Empey’s backup at center through fall camp, meaning Tukuafu only got third-team reps there before being called upon last week when it was determined neither could play against the Bulldogs.
“He graded well, particularly for being in his first start and playing every snap,” Grimes said. “The last time he played a full game was, I dunno, five or six years ago. And so I was really really pleased with his effort. And not only that, he provided a lot of leadership and a lot of energy on the sideline.”
Grimes said offensive line coach Eric Mateos recognized a year ago that Tukuafu, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, would make a good offensive lineman, and particularly a good center.
Grimes admitted Monday that there were some uneasy moments last week as Tukuafu got reps with the ones in practice.
“Honestly, throughout the week I thought his practice was up and down, a little bit shaky at times,” Grimes said. “But I felt like he was headed in the right direction. We challenged him really hard and reminded him after I think Wednesday practice of last week that a lot of people were counting on him.
“He said, ‘Coach, I got you. I am going to be ready.’ And from then on, the next 48 hours, I really began to see his sense of focus and sense of urgency grow.”
Tukuafu said he started to buy in to his new position during spring camp, although he admits that “probably 25% of me still wanted to catch passes.”
A transfer from Utah State who prepped at East High in Salt Lake City, Tukuafu now feels like he has found a home for the remainder of his college career.
“It felt good,” Tukuafu said. “As good as it felt, I know it took a lot of trust from them to let me man the center spot. … I am grateful for the coaching staff. They stayed by my side through every step.”