The offensive line is the most important unit in any offense. Without a cohesive and talented starting front, passing and rushing become more difficult. With BYU’s new up-tempo offense, the issue of sacrificing skill for speed has come to the forefront.
"I don't think it's a matter of having to sacrifice technique in order to speed up your performance, but I think it's just a matter of getting the reps in to establish the level of execution the coaches are looking for," said Manaaki Vaitai, who is replacing Solomone Kafu at left guard. "I think we can go fast and go hard and still be fundamentally sound in our technique. We just need to get more reps in so we can go fast and go hard, so I think it's just a matter of reps. With the reps that we are getting now, I think it's only a matter of time before we play like we're supposed to."
In addition to Vaitai taking Kafu’s spot at left guard, starting left tackle Ryker Mathews is now been replaced with Michael Yeck. Terrance Alletto is still the starting center, while right guard Brock Stringham is being moved over to right tackle (which Yeck played last week). The question of who will play right guard is still up in the air.
"I wouldn't say it's rolling the dice, but because of what happened last Saturday a lot of guys are starting to step up, seeing there's is an opportunity to play," said Vaitai. "The mindset now is we know that at any moment we can have the chance to get on the field and play and help the team to reach our goals as an offense. It's a chance for guys to show that we can go hard and go fast and prove it in a way the coaches want us to.
"From my point of view it's more of a confidence builder because it shows the diversity of our players to play different positions on either side of the line. It shows that any one of us can be called upon to play a position that we might not be as used to. It shows confidence from the coaching staff that they feel we can do what they're asking."
One has to question what the change does for chemistry and line cohesion. On the other hand, there might be some wisdom in the actions of Coach Anae and Coach Tujague, who've essentially sent a message that if someone doesn't produce, they will be replaced by those who might.
"Coach Anae and Coach Tujague always tells us that they are looking for five guys who can run this offense and produce," said Vaitai. "We know this scheme is going to work and the direction that Coach Anae is taking is going to work. We just need the right guys in there to achieve the goals we have set."
When Coach Anae first became BYU's offensive coordinator back in 2005, his desire was to run an offense much like the one at Texas Tech, where he had been the offensive line coach. However, BYU didn't have the type of talent to execute that specific air raid offense. In Coach Anae's first game against Boston College, the air raid offense was quickly replaced with the dink-and-dunk offense.
That raises a question about the “go fast, go hard” offense: does BYU have the talent on the line to execute his new offensive philosophy?
"I believe so, because the guys we have here now are very capable and talented," Vaitai said. "We have guys here that are able to step up and perform in a manner in which Coach Anae wants us to. Again, I think it just goes back to us getting the reps in and being able to match our talents to the level that’s expected so we can execute the plays Coach Anae has in the offense."
Taking a look at the Texas Longhorn defensive front, the caliber of talent on paper looks daunting. However, New Mexico State's offense produced 346 yards against the Longhorns last week (although the Aggies lost 56-7). Could BYU match or do better offensively than the Aggies of New Mexico State? If the Cougars are to do better, the offensive line will have control the trenches against many highly recruited athletes.
Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat
Texas lists the 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound Jeffcoat as a Buck linebacker, but he's essentially a defensive end who will stand up in the pass rush. Jeffcoat was a four-star recruit and the No. 2 defensive end recruit in the class of 2010. Yeck will have his hands full with the Longhorn senior.
Defensive tackle Malcom Brown
Coming in at 6 feet 4 inches and 305 pounds, Brown was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 defensive tackle in the class of 2012. Vaitai will have his hands full with Brown, who is both quick off the ball in his pass rush and strong against the run.
Defensive tackle Chris Whaley
Whaley was a four-star recruit who, at 6 feet 3 inches and 218 pounds in high school, played running back. Whaley is now listed at 298 pounds and tackles-ball carriers as a defensive tackle. The senior will more than likely face whoever ends up playing right guard.
Defensive tackle Desmond Jackson
The 6-foot-1-inch, 305-pound junior Desmond Jackson played in the U.S. Army All-American bowl game. Jackson was also a top 150 prospect and was listed as the No. 4 defensive tackle prospect in his recruiting class.
"When you look at the front seven, especially their down linemen, they’re very stout, strong men," said Vaitai. "I think it's going to be a matter of who will show up this Saturday and play sound, play fundamentally, and be able to communicate the best as a unit. I think we'll be able to handle ourselves.”
So how has practice changed now for the offensive linemen?
"I wouldn't say it's different, but it's not the same," said Vaitai. "The emphasis is a lot stronger now. I would say the emphasis now has shifted a little bit towards the physicality rather than emphasizing on just the speed. We as linemen are now more focused on being more hard and aggressive rather than letting guys come. We're trying to continue to build that mentality as an offensive unit.
"In our team setting Coach Tujague has been really stressing and seeing who is going to go hard and who is going to be more aggressive. He's been going through our drills and wants to see who is going to step hard vertically to push the guys in front of us to get our run game to work. He wants to see who is ready to do the work."
Vaitai is from Texas and played for Trinity High School in Euless. He received recruiting letters from Coach Mack Brown, but he wasn't really recruited by the Longhorns. He was recruited by some other Big 12 schools and other schools in his home state, but had his heart set on the Cougars.
"Just growing up, I've always wanted to be here at BYU," said Vaitai. "Just growing up in the state of Texas, I really wanted to get out and see what else is out there. That's why I came to BYU, because I wanted to be here rather than anywhere else."
With Vaitai coming from the state of Texas, beating the state’s favorite team would mean a lot to him.
"Being a player from the state of Texas, where [UT is] a big-name school and all about the hype, it's important for me to come out strong and play well," said Vaitai. "It's important too for me, and the rest of the offensive line, to come out and show everybody that we can execute this offense."
The success of BYU's offense now rests upon the shoulders of a new group of linemen given the charge of executing Coach Anae's offense. It's a tall order given the level of talent the unit will face this Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
"It puts a lot on our shoulders because we know they have put a lot of trust in us to make those changes after what happened last week," Vaitai said. "At the same time I think it will make us better because guys that were playing last week could try and come back and take their starting spots, so I think it's a way to move the group forward in an effort to reach the level of play the coaches are looking for. I do think we have the players to execute the level of play expected. We just have to go out and take the confidence the coaches have give in us and play the way we know how. I'm confident we can do that."