2003 BYU COUGARS: Offensive Line Preview

<B>QUINN CHRISTENSEN</B>

<i><b>1st in a series</b></i> <p> The success of the 2003 season hinges in large measure on the productivity, stability and cohesion of the Cougars offensive line (OL) as a unit. No one doubts that.

It's hard to predict how the OL will perform or which 10 players will win the final spots on the two-deep chart at the end of fall practice. If effort and commitment during the spring and summer workouts is a guide, there are good signs. The OL unit shows good leadership, not just in one or two guys, but especially from unit leader Scott Jackson. Most of them are working hard, pushing each other and building unity -- something that was plainly missing last year.

In an exclusive TotalBlueSports.com chat several days ago with former BYU signal caller Brandon Doman, he commented about how hard some of the OL guys were working in the several weeks he was on campus.

As a quarterback, he knew where his "bread was buttered," and how important the unsung OL was -- setting the stage for Doman and running back Luke Staley to put up 40 - 50 points a game.

When the OL took care of business, Doman did his reads on who was left standing or at least not shielded, found the open spot, and either pitched it or kept it. Sometimes he even threw it. BYU fans love to see the other team's defense on its heels. Some of us still feel like it was a Twilight Zone deal to have Luke and Doman do it running the option. Almost-mistake-free play by the OL is the trigger that makes it happen, if it does happen.

The list below is not a prediction of which guys will make up the OLs two-deep chart when the season begins, just a thumbnail of some of the "effort" guys and a little of what each is known for among peers and knowledgeable fans. This does not purport to be exhaustive, just a sketch.

The "effort" leaders include:

CENTER

- Scott Jackson - C, SR (300)

As talented as anyone, Jackson is the glue that holds everyone together. He is smart, savvy and tough. He leads by example in games or in workouts and is the OL's MVP. He is highly motivated to make this his year, since other seasons have been dogged or eliminated by injuries. He has been pushing his teammates hard and is a natural leader. Enough said.

- Cade McMullin - C, JR (295)

Based on effort and work ethic, he may beat out Hanale Vincent as backup center. He's smart, knows the offense as well as anyone and has good ability.

TACKLE

- Brandon Stephens - RT, SR (285)

Probably the best all-around athlete among the experienced OL. What he lacks in strength (he did test out stronger than Rykert), he makes up for in mobility.  Although he only weighs 285, that's where the coaches want him -- to deal with swift DEs or LBs coming from the outside. 

- Eddie Keele - LT, FR (300)

Does everything well. As a freshman, still learning. Fantastic work ethic. Does not miss workouts.  Like Stephens, Keele has good mobility.  It is a mark of his great promise to note that some see the possibility he could mature into another John Tait.

- Gary McGiven - RT, FR (295)

He may be the most pleasant surprise of the OL and his teammates rave about him.  He looked outstanding during the Spring game. His performance and work habits have served notice that he will compete for a starting job in the future.

- Scott Fisher - LT, FR (300) 

Had a good spring and has good mobility to play OT.

GUARD

- Quinn Christenson - LG, SR (300)

About as valuable at his position as Jackson and Stephens are at theirs. Gives BYU experience at three of the five starting spots.  He was the Cougars most consistent OL last season. Not great natural ability, but solid. His strength is run-blocking. He also is taking a leadership and tutoring role for the younger OL.

- Jake Kuresa - RG, FR (330)

Struggling with his weight and has only recently started getting it down. He relies on Jackson and Stephens on each side. Talent is there, but he needs to improve mobility that will be helped with weight loss. Listed as the starter after the Spring game, but may lose it if his weight/mobility does not improve. Kuresa has worked extremely hard in the summer to improve on all aspects. Doing everything necessary to retain his starting slot. Doesn't miss workouts.

- Scott Young - LG, SR (312)

Made the transition from defense to offense very smoothly. OG looks to be a better "fit" for his great physical strength than on DL. He would like to redshirt to work on technique, but he may play in '03 if needed to back up or even beat out Kuresa. If Kuresa loses the weight and gains mobility, it increases the chance that Young will redshirt. Another factor could be how confident Coach Reynolds is in the other backup OGs if Q or Kuresa get injured. At least OT has a couple of "effort" guys backing them up.

ROOKIES

- RJ Willing - ?, FR (290)

He has impressed his teammates with his work ethic and has earned their respect. He has been in Provo for a month now and is busting his butt in workouts.

- Ofa Mohetau - OG, FR (330)

With a later start than Willing, Ofa is working hard.  He is showing great effort and is anxious to learn. His OL teammates have embraced him and Willing and are quickly forming cohesion. Especially close to Kuresa. Willing or Mohetau are expected to contribute this year.

RECOVERING FROM ILLNESS

- Vincent Xanthos - C SR, (was 290, now 260)

Struggling to get back into shape after he and his wife had gas poisoning from a defective heater in their apartment last year. Still needs to recover weight, strength and agility. It may take some time. It's tough to be an "effort" guy when your body has not fully recovered.

Each year, Coach Reynolds has a challenging job to mold an effective OL, given how long it takes high school or junior college players to adjust to the quickness and strength of Division 1 defenders -- plus the complexity of both offensive and defensive schemes. Add to that the fact that: (a) injuries may occur to key people;

(b) the logistic challenge of missions;

(c) the usual year or so to recover physically after missions;

(d) some returned missionaries lose their competitive fire;

(e) the year-to-year continuity in the OL becomes a hurdle. The Cougars cannot become a major player if the OL has "on again/off again" years.

It is no wonder that OL was the team's big recruiting priority this past year. A look at these "effort" guys on the OL has a larger-than-expected number of freshmen, which is good for the longer term. Maybe they can be the foundation or base of solid OL play each year, to even up the "on again/off again" performance of recent years.

If or when injury hits, Coach Reynolds will look, in part, to this "cupboard" of "effort' players -- a large number of them freshmen -- to fill in. While developing his first and second-string players, he also has to juggle and make sure the third and fourth level players are getting their fundamentals down and preparing to contribute later on. If one of the starters goes down, you need "insurance" guys who can step in. Good teams find a way to keep going when injury strikes.

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