PROVO — Having served two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and therefore older than typical juniors in college football, BYU’s Khyiris Tonga and Matt Bushman had to make difficult decisions when the 2019 season wrapped up last winter.
Turn pro or return for a final season and risk being seen as “too old” by NFL scouts? Both decided to stay at BYU.
Offensive lineman Brady Christensen appears to be the next Cougar on track to face that dilemma. Christensen, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound left tackle from Bountiful — Zach Wilson’s blindside protector the past two seasons — with two seasons of eligibility remaining told the Deseret News last week he is totally undecided on whether the 2020 season, if it is played, will be his final season in Provo.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” said Christensen, 23, who spent two years as a missionary in Hamilton, New Zealand, before redshirting the 2017 season.
Christensen’s teammate on the offensive line — center James Empey — is also a returned missionary (Lisbon, Portugal) and redshirt junior with 26 consecutive starts under his belt. The son of former BYU player and coach Mike Empey will also have that decision at the end of the 2020 season, along with another redshirt junior who has started off and on the past two years, guard Keanu Saleapaga.
“Obviously, as players we are always thinking about the future, always thinking about the NFL,” Christensen said. “That’s obviously my goal, to make the NFL, and be able to have a long and successful career at that level. But my main focus right now is for the upcoming season.”
It is a season that also has an unclear future, due to concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause it to be delayed, shortened or canceled altogether. A year without football would be devastating for a player whose clock is already ticking.
But Christensen is undeterred.
“Going into my senior year, my plan was to be the best high school player I could be, and that is the same focus I have for this year,” he said. “My goal is to be the best offensive lineman I can be and then whatever happens, happens, and it will be a play-it-by-ear type of thing.”
Christensen said he’s had plenty of conversations with Bushman and Tonga on the matter.
“Obviously, each person has a little bit different situation, so when I am trying to make my decisions coming up to the NFL, I take what they say and listen to their advice, but I know at the end of the day it has to be my own thing, my own decision, that type of thing,” he said.
Christensen said Tonga and Bushman both told him they love playing for and representing BYU, and being coached by Kalani Sitake.
“And so do I,” he said.
On March 7, after the Cougars’ fourth practice of a spring camp that was halted a few days later, Empey also fielded questions about whether the 2020 season would be his last.
“Everybody’s dream is to go play in the NFL,” Empey said. “If someone says that is not their dream, they are lying to you And without drinking the poison, I just think we got to take every day during the spring to get better and then every day in the summer to get better and stronger and then every day in fall camp to get better and then every day in the season. I guess only time will tell, but we have a ton of work to do up until then.”
Offensive line coach Eric Mateos said in late March that Christensen and Empey ‘have not given in to any hype” and were focused on improvement instead of whether they will have the opportunity to leave early for the NFL draft.
Studying a lot today so y’all are going to have to unfollow or just enjoy. The concept of not throwing your hands for the sake of throwing hands has been new in my coaching the last couple years. DL are great hand swipes. Picked up from @CoachPaulAlex & @BigWillie7179. @Brady_BYU pic.twitter.com/NI24zqzcbI— Eric Mateos (@CoachMateos) April 29, 2020
“If anything, they have had the best offseason they have had as Cougars are are working harder than they ever have,” Mateos said. “A guy like Brady Christensen, he is just always in the weight room and getting extra film study. James Empey is always getting extra film study. I mean, they both have their own unique qualities. To me, they are the only guys in my eyes who are (for sure) returning starters.”
Senior guards Tristen Hoge and Kieffer Longson, sophomore tackles Blake Freeland and JT Gentry, senior right tackle Chandon Herring and sophomore left guard Clark Barrington were also having strong spring camps, Christensen said.
“The thing I am so impressed with from the offensive line right now is the depth,” Christensen said. “I feel like we have nine or 10 real solid guys right now. It is sad we missed out on some spring practices, but we are making strides.”
These days, that means making strides at home.
Christensen, who has been married for 16 months to Jordan, also from Bountiful, is still living in Provo and found a gym in Pleasant Grove in which to lift weights and work out.
BYU’s strength and conditioning staff sent workout regimens for those with access to weights, and those without, and Christensen has been doing a lot of both.
“You definitely have to be strong as an offensive lineman, so your body can absorb the blows that a full season has,” he said. “The pandemic hasn’t (slowed) us too much. As I have been talking to the whole offensive line, we have all found different ways to stay in shape and stay strong. Nobody is digressing. Everybody is progressing. I think we’ve done a good job.”
Since last week, the NCAA has allowed coaches to meet online with players for up to eight hours a week, so Mateos has met with his guys for about an hour every morning to go over schemes and plays.
“We’ve been in close communication with everybody,” Christensen said.
Of course, schoolwork continues as well, with the spring block of classes having started online last week. Christensen is majoring in accounting, and should graduate in December or next April, depending on how many classes he can get in.
By then he will have made one of the biggest decisions of his life. After the proper homework, of course.
BYU tackle Brady Christensen’s career timeline
2014 — Named to the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune 4A all-state first teams after helping Bountiful High rush for 218 yards per game
2015 — Signed with BYU after receiving offers from Air Force, Southern Utah and Weber State
2017 — Redshirted after serving a two-year church mission to Hamilton, New Zealand
2018 — Started in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman, ranked No. 2 freshman offensive tackle in country by Pro Football Focus
2019 — Started in all 13 games, helped BYU offense rank No. 26 in passing yards at 284.7 per game
ESPN #️⃣ RETURNING OFFENSIVE LINEMAN pic.twitter.com/TsotvDb5IR— BYU FOOTBALL (@BYUfootball) April 2, 2020