The seven offensive linemen most likely to be in the mix to start for the BYU football team are comprised of three sophomores, three juniors and just one senior, so it’s still a relatively young group.
But don’t expect Cougar offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes to cut them any slack because of their mostly underclassmen status.
“There is a lot of talk of playing well and doing a good job, but the bar is raised,” Grimes said at BYU football Media Day on Tuesday. “There is no excuse to fall back on. Most of the guys playing have had significant experience and should be significantly better. That’s an area I want to see improvement in. We want to play a tough, rugged brand of football and that starts with the guys up front.”
Those seven Cougar linemen have a total of 117 games under their belts already:
- Thomas Shoaf (senior): 33 games.
- Tristen Hoge (junior): 13 games.
- Chandon Herring (junior): 24 games.
- Kieffer Longson (junior): 11 games.
- James Empey (sophomore): 13 games.
- Brady Christensen (sophomore): 13 games.
- Keanu Saleapaga (sophomore): 10 games.
Hoge said that collective amount of time on the field means the unit expects to perform at a higher level just as Grimes does.
“The biggest key for us moving the ball is establishing line-of-scrimmage dominance, moving people against their own will,” Hoge said. “Establishing our run game will be a huge, integral part to how we play. That’s what his expectation is for us this year, what he tells us when he meets with us. He wants to be confident that if it is third-and-3 or third-and-short, he can put the ball behind us and he can know he is going to get that first down.”
Hoge explained that the key to making that happen is first getting stronger.
“We are spending so much time in the weight room, getting stronger and getting faster,” Hoge said. “We are also in the film room, making sure we know our jobs, know what everyone is doing so we are all on the same page. When we are all on the same page and moving that line of scrimmage as a unit, we are going to have success.”
One of the biggest benefits of having all the experience is that these BYU players know each other extremely well and have already gone into the trenches together.
“It’s huge,” Hoge said. “Having all the returners and the chemistry with each other, the brotherhood with the offensive line runs really deep. If we have an off moment, then the whole machine is out. It’s like having a bad part. That’s what makes us the heart of the team because they know that when we are on, everybody is on. When we are working hard, busting our butts in practice and in the games, it makes the quarterbacks and receivers do the exact same to elevate themselves to our standards.”
He said that he recently had a moment where he saw how things could click the way he knows his position group is capable of clicking.
“We have had camps going on and guys who had been off,” Hoge said. “Last week in player-run practices though everyone was able to be and saw that we didn’t skip a beat, seeing everyone working as a well-oiled machine. Our tempo was on, our plays were crisp and everyone was on the same page. I was like, this looks good. This looks really good.”
Grimes said he feels like the offensive line is moving in the right direction but he doesn’t think they are there yet.
“My feeling is that they did some good things last year but didn’t perform as a good, seasoned group can,” Grimes said. “I expect them to play better, to be more physical. If they are, then our offense will succeed at a higher level. If they are not, then it will be left up to the skill guys to make up for that and I really don’t want to do that. I want the offensive line to lead the charge.”
While players and coaches know that the offensive line is the engine that makes the offense go, it isn’t the only part of the BYU offense that Grimes expects to be at a higher level. He is holding everyone to that standard.
“When I was here before, something that I learned is that these players are willing to give a lot,” Grimes said. “They expect a lot of themselves. The real harm in what I might do as a coach is not in setting the bar too high but in setting the bar too low. I think that if I set the bar high, then they drive to meet that expectation.”