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Can BYU’s offensive line pick up where the 2020 version left off?

With Jeff Grimes’ departure for Baylor, the Cougars’ offense will look to maintain the dominance it displayed in 2020 — especially in the trenches. What will it take?

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BYU quarterback Zach Wilson looks down field from behind the offensive line during game against Navy on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md.

Tommy Gilligan, Associated Press

The unsung deserve the anthem.

Aaron Roderick knows it, as does departing Jeff Grimes in Kalani Sitake’s offensive coordinator exchange at BYU.

So states the science of football as folks know it.  

If you don’t have a strong, capable, even dominating offensive line, it doesn’t matter who’s running, throwing, breaking records or grabbing headlines.

The hogs up front mean everything.

In his first media appearance as BYU’s new offensive coordinator this past week, Roderick made a point of singling out one of the most impressive things to him about the Cougars’ last game, an offensive explosion in a blowout win over the University of Central Florida.

He called it “fascinating.”

It occurred when veteran center James Empey couldn’t play, Joe Tukuafu took his place and was injured and then-freshman Conner Pay replaced him. “We just kept rolling,” said Roderick

“Everyone knows how good a player James is, a three-year starter, a team captain and just an awesome player,” said Roderick.

“I don’t know if anybody noticed that we were down to our third center while we were going up and down the field. It starts with that, we have to have good offensive linemen in our program. Anytime you can hold up on the line of scrimmage, you have a chance. If you can’t block people, you’ve got no shot.

“That’s what excites me the most is that I have a lot of confidence that we are going to play well on the line of scrimmage against whoever we play. It starts there and then we’ve got to make the other pieces fit and make good use of our skill players.”

First-team consensus All-American left tackle Brady Christensen, rated the No. 1 left tackle in college by Pro Football Focus, declared for the NFL draft as a junior. So has guard Tristen Hoge.

The Cougars return a myriad of linemen who have played and the departing Grimes singled out a pair of 6-foot-8 sophomores, Blake Freeland and Harris LaChance, as impact replacements.

Roderick fully accepts Grimes’ mantra that BYU’s line continues its progress with physical play and reliability and he vows to build on that with returning O-line coach Eric Mateos, a Grimes hire.

“In all seriousness, I do believe in the same things that Jeff preached about, you know, being reliable and being physical. Those are characteristics that we should be able to have every year in this program,” Roderick said. “We’ve tried to lean on the fact that we coach kids that are reliable and kids that have some size and physicality on this team, and we need to use it. That part will not change. I don’t plan on our offense changing very much, if at all. There will be little tweaks every year to try to stay one step ahead of opponents.”

Grimes did bring an aggressive attitude into Sitake’s offense, especially with his expertise with blockers. We saw it with his choice of offensive line coach Ryan Pugh, who left to be the offensive coordinator at Troy. His replacement Mateos picked up where Pugh left off and remains at BYU, is currently looking for a house in Utah County, and is getting married.

In a strange twist, Grimes hired Pugh to go with him to Baylor but days later Baylor rescinded the offer. Grimes may now target Mateos.

Grimes had a public exit interview with ESPN 960 last week, providing a state of the program view, specifically about the future of BYU’s offensive line. He said the numbers (depth) won’t be what they were in 2020 but there are prospects returning and others added from missions that will help.

“It’s in excellent shape,” Grimes said.

“I mean you will see guys who will be familiar, for the most part, filling in there. You get Blake Freeland and Harris LaChance, who I think are both outstanding tackles. Connor Pay, who got to step in and play a key role particularly in the bowl game, is another.”

Grimes said fostering heated competition for playing time is a key. 

“It’s been one of the hallmarks of what we did as a staff because we’ve made people earn their jobs,” he said. “And then we’ve made people earn their reps in games. You’ve seen different lineups from us at times and from week to week, a guy gets more reps in one game but not another as he disappears a little bit and then you see the emergence of someone else.

“And I think that’s the way that it should be because this is a competitive business and you’ve got to earn your right to get on the field. There is no such thing in my opinion as, ‘Well, I’m a gamer.’ No. You have to show me in practice. If you do it in practice, then you could be a gamer.”

BYU will miss Christensen, projected to be the first Cougars O-lineman drafted since 2005 when Grimes was at BYU under Bronco Mendenhall and had Scott Young drafted.

Grimes says not having BYU O-linemen drafted should not be the norm at BYU.

He said Pugh told him very early that his offense would have a first-and-15 all the time in scrimmages because Christensen had high anxiety and would false start. “That’s exactly what happened. But he worked and worked and became amazing.

“I love Blake and Harris, they have great length and potential to not only be great college players, but NFL players. They’ve still got to improve. They have to play better and get their bodies in shape, learn the game better, improve their technique and all those things that you have to do to be a great player. But there is no reason those two can’t be great players here the next couple of years.”

Grimes said BYU’s offensive line will be better some years than others, but BYU should be good because they can recruit offensive linemen who check the list. 

 Grimes thinks there will be more in the future because Pugh and Mateos have recruited well according to prerequisites.

“Obviously it starts with recruiting. You have to make the right decisions. You’ve got to be able to get (players that are) big and strong and flexible, but you have to make sure they have the other things that really matter the most to develop.” 

He lists those things as strength potential, enough quickness and body control.

“Even if they aren’t the best at all of those, you have to have enough of those prerequisites.  If you have the heart and passion for the game and if you don’t mind choking somebody out, then you’ll develop into a good offensive lineman. We began having that mindset and a process and it didn’t happen overnight. It took the work of our weight room and I give those guys credit and I credit both Ryan and Eric for recruiting and coaching those guys the last three years.”

Grimes said it is imperative that Sitake and Roderick do what they can to keep Mateos for continuity and that the room respected him. 

“He’s going to do a great job. There are a lot of quality coaches out there, but what you have in him is not only a quality coach who has built the right culture, but a guy who has the trust of his room.”

That statement was made before Grimes lost Pugh and many expect him to look at plucking Mateos from BYU. Mateos last worked at Texas State after a stint with Grimes at LSU; he is a native of Overland, Kansas.

If Roderick and Sitake lose Mateos, the need for a quality replacement looms huge.

With Wilson riding out with Christensen and Hoge and his favorite target Dax Milne, whatever the Cougars do in 2021 begins up front with Mateos and the bodies he turns to. 

If that doesn’t get done, it matters little who replaces Wilson and who he hands the ball to.