2020 BYU Cougars Position Preview: Offensive Line
PROVO, Utah – Offensive line has been a top priority during Kalani Sitake’s tenure as head coach of BYU Cougars. From coaching hires with Jeff Grimes as offensive coordinator to recruiting, a lot of resources and focus have been played along the offensive line in Sitake’s BYU program.
The commitment to investing in the trenches should see a big payoff in 2020 as BYU returns seven players who have started in games along the offensive line in their careers for a total of 115 starts.
When Sitake took over in 2016, he had six scholarship offensive linemen in spring football. Now it’s a unit that boasts 13 scholarship players and could be one of the best in college football this season.
As we approach kickoff for the 2020 BYU football season, let’s take a further look at the BYU offensive line for this season.
Key players at Offensive Line
Brady Christensen, RS-Jr.
What a rise Brady Christensen has experienced in his career. From lightly-recruited two-star recruit who weighed 250 pounds to now becoming one of the top offensive tackles in the country.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Christensen has started in all 26 of BYU’s games the past two years at left tackle. During fall camp, Jeff Grimes said that Christensen has made a “significant jump” in his game. This is impressive when you consider Christensen could be a player that considers the NFL Draft next season.
James Empey, RS-Jr.
Pro Football Focus graded Empey as the top pass protection center in college football last season. Empey had the tall task in 2017 trying to fill the shoes of Tejan Koroma and he’s done it with flying colors. Like Christensen, Empey has started in all 26 games the past two years for BYU. On a trajectory towards being one of the best centers in program history.
Tristen Hoge, Grad-Sr.
Now healthy and checking in at a healthy 320 pounds, Hoge has always had the attention of NFL scouts from his days as a four-star recruit out of Highland High School in Pocatello. Now he’s got one final year to make an impression on the scouts. Recently, Hoge was named to the Reese’s Senior Bowl Top 250 players list. A player that can line up at nearly any spot on the offensive line, but most of his work will happen in the interior again this fall.
Blake Freeland, Soph.
Last year’s game against Boise State was the first time in Blake Freeland’s life that he took snaps in a football game along the offensive line. He showed out well helping BYU upset the undefeated Broncos in a win that got the season back on track after a 2-4 start. Offensive line coach Eric Mateos said Freeland has grown quite a bit since then in his football IQ.
Offensive Line newcomers
This is a unique year where everyone gets a blanket waiver for their eligibility to remain the same in 2021. Giving an opportunity for newcomers to potentially play this season if the opportunity arrives. This offensive line will stick with its top seven or so barring injury or health concerns with COVID-19. If they dig into their bench, some of these new names could be options.
Mo Unutoa, RS-Jr. (Transfer from Utah)
Was listed as Utah’s starter at offensive tackle before spring ball started for the Utes in 2019 then he entered the transfer portal and ended up at BYU. Could play at tackle or on the interior at guard.
Elijah Unutoa, Fr.
Younger brother to Mo Unutoa, Elijah returned home early from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A three-star prospect, Unutoa was one of the top signees in BYU’s 2019 recruiting class.
Connor Pay, Fr.
A former three-star signee out of Lone Peak High School, Pay is the son to former BYU offensive lineman Garry Pay who played for the Cougars during the Ty Detmer era in the early 1990s. Despite being a true freshman fresh off serving a Latter-day Saint mission to Washington D.C., Pay earned some second-team reps during fall camp according to Jeff Grimes. In the running to make the travel roster.
Seth Willis, Fr.
Willis returned home from his Latter-day Saint mission on schedule and was expected to arrive at BYU for the fall of 2020. A former two-star prospect from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Willis was a camp MVP at a BYU Summer Camp in 2017 earning him a scholarship offer.
Jori Benson, Fr.
A preferred walk-on from Plesant Grove High School who checks in at 6-foot-5, 302-pounds. An intriguing offensive tackle prospect to watch in future years with more reps and development in the program.
Projected BYU Cougars Depth Chart
From left to right
First unit: Brady Christensen, left tackle; Kieffer Longson, left guard; James Empey, center; Tristen Hoge, right guard; Blake Freeland, right tackle
Second unit: Harris LaChance, Chandon Herring, Tristen Hoge, Clark Barrington, Keanu Saleapaga
Where will this offensive line rank in sacks allowed this season?
Last year, BYU’s offensive line was 77th in the country in sacks allowed. That ranking will improve this year, simply because there isn’t a full 130 FBS teams playing this fall, but allowing 29 sacks last year is a number that needs to go down. Especially with quarterbacks that have a well-documented injury history.
Can they avoid “the poison”?
BYU offensive line coach Eric Mateos is big on his players avoiding “the poison”, which is code for, don’t buy into the headlines and the press accolades. Can they avoid the noise and reach their potential as a unit? With a schedule that should allow BYU to dominate up front, the opportunity is there for this group to be BYU’s offensive front since the Cougars became an Independent in 2011.
BYU Cougars 2020 Offensive Line personnel
* = Walk-on
Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.
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