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Provo • At first glance, BYU offensive line coach Mike Empey's job looks relatively simple in 2017, compared to the massive overhaul he faced when he took over for Virginia-bound predecessor Garett Tujague in 2016.
Four offensive linemen who started in nine or more games for BYU last year return, including seniors Tejan Koroma, Keyan Norman and Tuni Kanuch up the middle. Freshman All-American Thomas Shoaf has been moved to left tackle to protect Tanner Mangum's blind side, and two-game starter Austin Hoyt appears capable of replacing Shoaf on the right side if he can outperform some fast-charging redshirt freshmen who were highly recruited out of high school before church missions.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake has repeatedly referred to the offensive line as one of the biggest strengths of the entire team throughout spring camp.
The unit that helped BYU average more than 200 rushing yards per game in 2016 and lost only starting left tackle Andrew Eide and part-time starting guard Parker Dawe to graduation was dominant and powerful in the relatively few plays it was on the field in Saturday's spring scrimmage.
But Empey isn't relaxing this month. Beyond the likely starting five, the Cougars are extremely inexperienced along the offensive line, and their depth was dealt a blow recently when projected backup center Jacob Jimenez suffered an ACL injury during the practice in St. George that will keep him on the sidelines in 2017. Three-year starter Ului Lapuaho, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Utah, will also miss the 2017 season, maybe more.
"Technically, we have a veteran O-line because we got five guys who got some starting time last year, but we are also trying to get some new guys up to speed, get them into that two-deep," Empey said. "We've still have an awful lot of work to do."
Sitake said the offense "is going to have to lean on the O-line" because the Cougars don't appear to have many playmakers at running back or receiver. The offensive star of the scrimmage was freshman tight end Matt Bushman.
"We are going to have to run the ball. That's what we do here," Sitake said. "Establishing the run game is going to be the most important thing for us right now."
Shoaf stepped in when Lapuaho went down last year, and has welcomed the switch to the left side, where Eide was a mainstay all season.
"I wouldn't say we are the strength of the team, but we definitely take a lot of pride in what we do," Shoaf said. "We are proud that we had a part of the team rushing for over 200 yards a game last season."
Barring injury, Empey's guys should be fine. Junior JJ Nwigwe and sophomore Addison Pulsipher will provide some depth.
The coach is also excited about four returned missionaries who redshirted last year and will be the nucleus of future BYU offensive lines: Kieffer Longson, Chandon Herring, Austin Chambers and Zac Dawe. Junior college transfer Taipe Vaka (Diablo Valley) and returning missionary Brady Christensen (Bountiful High) are scheduled to join the team in the fall, but redshirts are possibilities for both.
"I got guys whose last games were in high school, before their missions," Empey said, referring to Longson, Herring, Chambers and Dawe. "Just getting them in there and getting them involved in that run game is so different in terms of speed and size. Their last game was the state high school playoffs three years ago. So this is different."
And not as easy as it looks.
BYU's projected offensive line starters
Player Yr. Pos Ht/Wt 2016 starts
Thomas Shoaf Soph Left Tackle 6-5/275 9
Keyan Norman Sr Left Guard 6-3/305 13
Tejan Koroma Sr Center 6-0/290 13
Tuni Kanuch Sr Right Guard 6-3/310 9
Austin Hoyt Jr Right Tackle 6-8/305 2
Kieffer Longson Fr Right Tackle 6-7/300 N/A
Note: Lui Lapuaho and Jacob Jimenez will miss the 2017 season with knee injuries; Longson is expected to push Hoyt for a starting spot.