PROVO — BYU offensive line coach Eric Mateos, about to enter his second season coaching the Cougars’ hogs if the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t force the postponement or cancellation of the 2020 college football campaign, cringed when he saw a report a few months ago from Pro Football Focus.

The website that uses a broad range of advanced statistics to grade every college player at the FBS level called BYU’s offensive line the No. 12 unit in college football last season. With All-America candidates James Empey (center) and Brady Christensen (left tackle) returning along with every player that started a game in 2019, the BYU offensive line is expected to be even better this season.

Mateos famously calls such hype “poison” and admonishes the 17 or so players under his care, especially the dozen or so expected to be contributors in 2020, to ignore it.

“My thing with talking about poison is that you have to be the same guy, whether you are playing in a parking lot or in front of 100,000 fans,” Mateos said Monday in a telephone interview with the Deseret News. “I am trying to develop that mindset on the offensive line that it doesn’t really matter what anybody says about you. Don’t listen. Just avoid that stuff, that hype. The only thing that matters is what you do on Saturday.”

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Mateos, one of the more active BYU coaches on social media, is known for posting pictures of a bottle of poison when the offensive line receives praise on Twitter or the like.

“There is always too much hype, in my opinion,” he said. “Going into last season, I was really dumbfounded with the positive press about the O-line, unwarranted hype, unearned accolades. … They were supposedly awesome the year before, but rushed for just 50 yards against Utah State (in 2018), or something like that. I was really disturbed with the amount of hype going into the season.”

He said the OL was OK the first three games, wins over Tennessee and USC and a loss to Utah, then lost its edge in losses to Washington, Toledo and South Florida.

“I don’t think we dominated like we should have,” he said. “We were still an immature group that didn’t know how to play at a high level every week.”

Along with Christensen and Empey, who have started every game together (26 games) the past two seasons, veterans with multiple starts on the offensive line include seniors Kieffer Longson (3), Tristen Hoge (18) and Chandon Herring (12). Junior Keanu Saleapaga (19) and sophomores Blake Freeland (7) and Clark Barrington (4) emerged the second half of the season when injuries sidelined Longson and Hoge.

“I am trying to develop that mindset on the offensive line that it doesn’t really matter what anybody says about you. Don’t listen. Just avoid that stuff, that hype. The only thing that matters is what you do on Saturday.” — BYU offensive line coach Eric Mateos

Utah transfer Mo Unutoa and converted tight end Joe Tukuafu join the mix, with Tukuafu expected to back up Empey at center after 2019 backup Caden Haws switched to defense. Saleapaga and Tukuafu weren’t able to participate in the six spring practices BYU got in before camp was canceled, due to recent surgeries.

In a teleconference last week, head coach Kalani Sitake said physicality and tackling were increased at spring camp — one practice in particular featured 75 plays in full pads — and the offensive line showed well.

“We felt really comfortable with the guys that were coming in and providing us some beef up front on the O-line and D-line,” Sitake said. “That allowed us to see and forecast our lineup, the guys who are kinda battling for the starting spots and playing time.”

Mateos said Christensen and Empey are the only linemen who have earned their starting spots.

“With this particular group, there are so many young players, and it is really easy for a young player to say, ‘Oh, we are supposed to be good. So we are going to be good.’ And they miss the whole point of what goes into making a really good O-line.”

That happened too much last year, Mateos believes. But he liked what he saw in six practices in March. 

“I was actually really pleased. I thought we were playing faster than we have played since I have been here,” he said. “We were really starting to develop a nastiness to us, almost to a point where I have to get us not to be taking a couple cheap shots. But every coach would rather pull them back than get them to go, so that was a positive.”

But that was the extent of the “poison” the coach who has previously coached at Texas State, LSU and Arkansas was willing to deliver.

“I still think there is a lot to get done,” he said. “That is the disappointing thing about losing spring ball. I was excited to see where we could get at the end.”

Mateos said he’s in contact with his guys almost every day though the use of technology, passing along training techniques during the quarantine and monitoring their academic progress. Almost all his offensive linemen remained in Provo when classes were put online, he said, because most are either married or are from Utah or Idaho.

BYU’s projected starting offensive line in 2020

Left tackle: Brady Christensen, Jr.

Left guard: Kieffer Longson, Sr., or Clark Barrington, So.

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Center: James Empey, Jr.

Right guard: Tristen Hoge, Sr., or Keanu Saleapaga, Jr.

Right tackle: Blake Freeland, So., or Chandon Herring, Sr.

Also in the mix: Harris LaChance, So.; Joe Tukuafu, Jr.; Ethan Atagi, So.; Mo Unutoa, Jr.

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