Why hiring experienced offensive line coach was vital for Kalani Sitake, Aaron Roderick
BYU is losing four outstanding offensive linemen off a team that went 11-1 in 2020, most notably NFL-bound left tackle Brady Christensen, and face a difficult schedule in 2021
Most coaches only have two shoes to fill when they take a job in a major college football program.
New BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk has four.
Fortunately for the 33-year coaching veteran, former offensive line coach Eric Mateos and former offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, who had been heavily involved in developing BYU’s offensive line the past three years, left Funk plenty of talent and experience with which to work.
“We are losing some really good players on the O-line, but we are also getting some really good players back,” said new offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who was pretty much tasked by head coach Kalani Sitake to find a replacement for Mateos, who is joining Grimes at Baylor.
Roderick says he was also told by Sitake when he was promoted from passing game coordinator to OC that BYU would no longer have six offensive coaches and four defensive coaches. Sitake was evening it up by adding former Oregon State defensive coordinator Kevin Clune as the Cougars’ new linebackers coach.
“Darrell’s experience is exactly why I went after him. With us losing a coach on offense, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, experience-wise, with an O-line guy. Right away that kind of eliminated all the younger, less-experienced candidates.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick on why he picked Darrell Funk to replace Eric Mateos as the Cougars’ new offensive line coach
“Darrell’s experience is exactly why I went after him,” Roderick said. “With us losing a coach on offense, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance, experience-wise, with an O-line guy. Right away that kind of eliminated all the younger, less-experienced candidates.”
Roderick said he narrowed it down to “been there, done that,” type of candidates.
“I didn’t know Darrell personally, but I coached against him when he was at Colorado State and San Diego State (and Roderick was at Utah) and I knew he coached under Sonny Lubick (at CSU) and Brady Hoke (at Michigan and SDSU) and I have great respect for both of those head coaches.”
Roderick said he “heard a lot of great things about Darrell over the years” from other coaches in the business.
“His offensive lines always execute well, and he is a no-ego guy and a high-character person,” Roderick said. “I wanted a guy who has been coaching a long time, and can go into that room and just take it over and pick up where we left off. We couldn’t afford to bring in someone who is still in the training phase of their career.”
A native of Fort Collins, Colorado, who played at Colorado State, Funk has coached offensive lines for 25 of his 33 seasons in the business. He was out of coaching last season, having been released from UTSA’s staff after the 2019 season, but has also worked at Michigan, Purdue, Ball State, Indiana State and Akron, among other schools.
Sitake told KSLSports.com that Roderick “did all the work” and “talked to a lot of people” before deciding on Funk.
“We had a lot of candidates for that job,” Sitake said. “I wanted to pick a person that A-Rod felt really good about. A-Rod was going to make that hire. I think offensive coordinators really need to have their own O-line coach. That’s with any team. You really want them to feel comfortable with it.”
Sitake said BYU is a “unique place” with older, more mature offensive linemen and that is one of the aspects of the job that appealed to Funk.
“Our guys don’t really have to be babysat,” Sitake said. “I think Darrell appreciates that. I think he will help us take the next step and make the O-line even better.”
Funk has some work to do, because the Cougars lose four mainstays from the past several years. Seniors Tristen Hoge, Chandon Herring and Kieffer Longson all decided to move on, despite having an NCAA-granted opportunity to stay for an additional year.
BYU’s top returning offensive linemen
James Empey, 6-4, 303, Senior
Clark Barrington, 6-6, 302, Junior
Blake Freeland, 6-8, 300, Junior
Joe Tukuafu, 6-4, 301, Senior
Keanu Saleapaga, 6-6, 310, Senior
Harris LaChance, 6-8, 310, Junior
Connor Pay, 6-5, 300, Sophomore
Mo Unutoa, 6-5, 290, Junior
And standout junior left tackle Brady Christensen, Zach Wilson’s blindside protector the past three years, declared early for the NFL draft and is a probable mid-round pick. Hoge and Herring are getting some pre-draft hype as well.
So who’s coming back as the Cougars begin spring practices Monday?
The list of top returnees starts with senior center James Empey, a three-year starter who has played in 34 games. Empey appeared in only eight games last year, due to an ankle injury, but is easily BYU’s best returning starter. When Empey was out, senior Joe Tukuafu and sophomore Connor Pay filled in and played well. Both will be considered for other starting spots on the O-line this fall.
Back also is starting left guard Clark Barrington, a rising junior who has played in 20 games. Another rising junior, Blake Freeland, has played in 18 games and is the heir apparent to Herring at starting right tackle.
Christensen leaves big shoes to fill. One prospect to take his place is Harris LaChance, a 6-8, 310-pound rising junior who has appeared in 28 games but has never quite been able to nail down a full-time starting spot.
Senior Keanu Saleapaga could also earn a starting spot, having started in several games in past years before injuries and other setbacks kept him off the field in 2020. Utah transfer Mo Unutoa could also push for some starting time.
Players back from church missions who could contribute on the O-line include Washington’s Campbell Barrington, Texas’ Brock Gunderson, Weber High’s Tyson Lewis and Arizona’s Donovan Hanna, a former tight end who is up to 280 pounds and has been moved to the offensive line.