BYU football: Cougars' injury-plagued O-line is persevering
Provo • Mark Weber has been an assistant college football coach for 34 years, including the last six at BYU as the school's offensive line coach. He has never seen more of his players miss games due to injuries than he has this season.
"Not even close," he said.
As the 7-5 Cougars prepare for the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20, Weber is still in scramble mode, trying to figure out which guys will be healthy enough to take on 9-3 San Diego State's formidable defensive front and coach Rocky Long's blitzing schemes at Qualcomm Stadium.
BYU's offensive linemen have been fingered for the Cougars' disappointing season more than any players not named Riley Nelson, but Weber says he is actually happy with the way the unit has performed, given the circumstances.
"I would say that they have worked extremely hard, and I would say that they have improved tremendously," he said. "Some of these guys were not even expected to play, but they played, and we had chances to win every game.
"We had a chance to beat the No. 1 team in the nation [Notre Dame]," Weber continued. "So there have been ups and downs, like any year. But these guys have worked hard and improved maybe as much as any unit on the team."
The two guard positions were shaken up the most, with sophomore Solomone Kafu moving in at left guard the last seven games and junior Manaaki Vaitai playing right guard the last eight games.
The irony is that this was supposed to be the best-conditioned line in school history, as the Cougars' linemen spent countless hours getting fit in the offseason and adhering to strict nutrition guidelines, trying to dispel the notion that the typical BYU blocker is a slow, plodding plowhorse.
"We were in better shape," freshman offensive lineman Ryker Mathews said. "But a lot of freaky things have happened, injuries you just can't explain."
For instance, sophomore Brock Stringham got tonsillitis, which kept him out of several games, while senior Braden Hansen suffered a slight groin tear during the 17-14 loss to Notre Dame that caused him to miss the Georgia Tech and Idaho games and come out of the New Mexico State game earlier than he would have liked.
Hansen, who plays the all-important center position, is listed as day-to-day for the bowl game.
Injuries suffered by Hansen and Stringham are just the latest setbacks Weber has had to endure. The bad news flowed in before the season started when seniors Walter Kahaiali'i and Ryan Freeman were forced to give up football due to chronic injuries.
Junior guard Houston Reynolds tore his Achilles tendon in the Utah game. Sophomore Famika Anae joined them on the sidelines for good after his dominant performance against Hawaii due to the cumulative effects of a variety of injuries, most related to a surgically repaired knee.
"Just freaky things," Weber said. "I mean, how do you prevent an Achilles tear?"
All the injuries on the offensive side of the ball, coupled with the most dominant BYU defense in a decade, has a lot of people around the team wondering what might have been.
Weber said that in his first four years at BYU, every single starter was healthy enough to start every game. Last year, the same five players started in 10 games. Marco Thorson started in place of Houston Reynolds in the other three, as Reynolds battled a shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery.
"You don't want to put that excuse out there, but I think [injuries] have had a little bit to do with our struggles," Mathews said. "A lot of it is mental, though. If we are on the right track mentally, we are a great O-line. If we are not there mentally, it has been a struggle."
BYU's offensive line woes
• Senior Ryan Freeman retired before season due to injury.
• Senior Walter Kahaiali'i retired before season due to injury.
• Sophomore Fono Vakalahi left program during preseason camp.
• Sophomore Famika Anae retired after five games with various knee issues.
• Junior Houston Reynolds tore his Achilles tendon against Utah.
• Sophomore Brock Stringham missed several games with tonsillitis.
• Senior Braden Hansen missed several games with a groin tear.
P BYU vs. San Diego State
Dec. 20, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN