Rome isn’t the only thing that took longer than a day to build. BYU’s offensive line required some major construction work heading into last season.
The Cougars didn’t fit the blueprint of what Kalani Sitake wanted to see in the trenches. BYU had a cadre of smaller linemen who were built for an up-tempo spread offense. It wasn’t what the Cougars needed for a more traditional pro-style offense.
It meant putting together a patchwork line to man the trenches while the BYU coaching staff worked with those linemen to boost their size and strength, improve their mobility and technique and enhance their nutrition.
Heading into Sitake’s second season, the offensive line is much closer to matching his initial vision. They are bigger and stronger.
“They’re not pushing us to our limits,” senior right guard Tuni Kanuch said. “They’re pushing us past our limits. They’re helping us get to places where we never saw ourselves.”
BYU returns five full-time or part-time starters on the offensive line in 2017. Three seniors – Kanuch, left guard Keyan Norman and center Tejan Koroma – anchor the middle of the line. Thomas Shoaf moves over to left tackle after starting nine games at right tackle as a freshman. Austin Hoyt, a junior, is listed at right tackle heading into fall camp.
These five players combined for 46 starts a season ago. Their size is improving. Three of the five starters tip the scales at 300 pounds or more. Kanuch leads the way at 320 pounds, although his goal is to get down to 305 pounds so he can improve his quickness and technique.
For the Cougars, the current construction phase on the offensive line is all about shoring up numbers and experience in the trenches.
BYU brought in several highly regarded transfers to help build up front. John Vaka joined the Cougars as a junior college transfer from Diablo Valley College. James Empey (Utah) and Tristen Hoge (Notre Dame) came to BYU from Power 5 programs elsewhere. Empey and Vaka will be able to contribute this season while Hoge is eligible to play in 2018.
Ultimately, the goal for BYU coaches is to get to a point where they can develop a legitimate two-deep rotation across the board on the line of scrimmage.
“We’re getting the numbers and we’re trying to develop them as fast as we can,” Cougars offensive line coach Mike Empey said. “Even though we’re getting the numbers in there, we’re still trying to get that experience. It’s hard to replace experience, so we’re just trying to accelerate their development as best we can.”
“We’re getting the numbers and we’re trying to develop them as fast as we can. Even though we’re getting the numbers in there, we’re still trying to get that experience. It’s hard to replace experience, so we’re just trying to accelerate their development as best we can.” — Mike Empey, BYU offensive line coach
A similar evolution is taking place along the defensive line of scrimmage. Sitake switched to a 4-3 alignment when he took over as head coach. This required BYU to stock up on defensive linemen in recent recruiting classes like a prepper hoarding supplies in a bunker.
Between true freshmen, transfers and returned missionaries, the Cougars have added 10 defensive linemen to the roster in 2017. That’s on top of the nine linemen who lettered last season — including five players who return with at least part-time starting experience.
BYU’s eagerness to bring in so many linemen on both sides of the ball shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Sitake’s coaching pedigree. His mentors — Kyle Whittingham and Gary Andersen — both place a huge emphasis on building powerful offensive and defensive lines that grind opponents over four quarters.
For the players on the Cougars’ roster, the emphasis on building up the line shows them that the coaching staff is serious about building a consistent winner in Provo.
“If you understand football you understand that the line is the key to the tempo and the success of offense and defense,” senior defensive linemen Handsome Tanielu said. “If you don’t have a good offensive line, you can’t score. If you don’t have a good defensive line, you won’t be able to provide opportunities for the the linebackers and defensive backs to make turnovers.”
Becoming bigger and stronger up front on defense could mean even more disruptive playmaking on that side of the ball for BYU in the season ahead. The Cougars stayed competitive with every opponent a year ago largely because of their ability to produce takeaways.
BYU ranked second nationally in takeaways (31), fourth in interceptions gained (21) and seventh in turnover margin (+12) in 2016.