PROVO — When BYU unveiled its depth chart Monday heading into the 2020 season, there were some surprises among the starters, and the backups, that were listed on the offensive line.
Sophomore Clark Barrington received the starting nod at left guard over senior Kieffer Longson while senior Chandon Herring is on the first team over sophomore Blake Freeman. Meanwhile, true freshman Connor Pay finds himself on the two-deep at right guard over Keanu Saleapaga, and Joe Tukuafu, a former tight end, is listed as the backup center.
The Cougars open the season Monday (6 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at Navy.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Barrington was the offensive MVP during the recently concluded fall camp.
“If you look at how Clark played last year, compared to where he is right now, I’m really, really pleased with his progress as a player,” Grimes said. “Last year, he was a true freshman. He was just trying to figure it out. He was injected into the lineup midseason. In a lot of cases, he was just kind of hanging on. But right now, he’s playing with much more confidence, which creates a player that plays with much more speed and aggression. I just like his focus right now. He’s very, very focused on the job every single day.”
BYU’s other starters on the O-line under offensive line coach Eric Mateos are junior left tackle Brady Christensen; junior center James Empey; and senior right guard Tristen Hoge.
Hoge is happy that Barrington has earned a starting role.
“He’s definitely made strides. He’s put in all the work that he can. Even during the quarantine, I could tell that he was working during that entire time that everybody was apart,” Hoge said of Barrington. “Then through fall camp, I saw the dedication that he has, watching film and on the field. He was really gunning for that spot. I could see him getting it. He has definitely earned it. Last year he was thrown into it and that’s a tough situation. But he’s taken it, he’s learned from it and he’s become better in the long run for it.”
Starting quarterback Zach Wilson loves the big guys up front.
“This O-line is a really good O-line. They’re going to come through and be one of the most dominant O-lines in the country, I’m sure. These guys have really put in the work,” he said. “They’re getting after it every single day. Physically, those guys are huge. They’re all freak athletes. They’re running 40s and they’re getting under five-flats. We’ve got some strong, powerful dudes. Those are the guys that set the tempo in the game and they’re the ones that come out and smack you in the mouth first. Their progress from last year is huge. I talked to (defensive lineman) Khyiris (Tonga) about it. He’s like, ‘The O-line is good, compared to last year.’ I’m glad. I wouldn’t want anyone else protecting me.”
Cougars defensive lineman Zac Dawe has also been impressed by what he’s seen from BYU’s offensive line, which he has faced numerous times during practices.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the offensive line. They’re thick, they’re strong. If you’ve never seen them in person, they’re monsters. They’re modern-day Goliaths,” Dawe said. “We have a lot of veterans and they know what they’re doing. They work in unison with coach Mateos. On offense we have a lot of good skill players but the offensive line, I don’t think we’ve had as good of an offensive line the last couple of years as we do this year.”
While the offensive line has been praised during the offseason, Christensen said he and his teammates aren’t paying attention to that.
“Coach Mateos always says, ‘Never drink the poison.’ So we try not to listen to all of that. But we’re a confident group. We’ve been together for a long time and that’s huge up front,” he said. “You’ve got to know what everyone’s doing. We’ve got to be in sync. That’s the biggest thing going into this season. It’s that unity we have. We have a long ways to go still. We make mistakes and we can still be more physical. But we’re on the right track and we’re ready to give it our all.”
Grimes is looking for the offensive line to fulfill its potential.
“I feel good about the group. I think we’re in position to make that kind of jump that we’ve been looking for from our offensive line,” he said. “Last year, I felt we played good in some spots and in some spots not quite as well as maybe we could have. Moving guys around due to some injuries I think created a little bit of instability there. But the biggest jump we’re looking for is for that group to lead our team with toughness.”
Wilson said the offensive line is united and has put itself in position to shine this fall.
“Those guys are studs. All of them have some playing time now; a couple of years under their belts. The biggest thing with the O-line is how close all of them are — their connection,” he said. “They’re always watching film together and studying the playbook. They do everything together. That’s really important because they’re one unit and they all rely on each other. That’s huge. Those guys all trust each other and want each other to be the best they can be. I’m excited to watch those guys ball out, especially on Labor Day.”