Ever since I played a round of golf two decades ago with Roger French, I’ve had a greater appreciation for the offensive line, for the significance of the guys up front whose names nobody knows. It is the single most important subset of any football team, he said. It is a team’s hub and its nub, its base and its bosom, its soul.
Without strong play from the big uglies, everything’s a freaking mess. (He didn’t use the word freaking.)
Doesn’t BYU know it now.
French knew it back then.
So did LaVell Edwards, who once said: “You’re never going to be a better offense than your line allows you to be.”
Take a long look in the rearview at the Cougars’ best teams, all those explosive offenses that now are fading from memory, and it’s clear what they had in common, other than a great quarterback: They had a bunch of skilled, extraordinarily large men who graded the road.
What BYU wouldn’t do for a group like that on Saturday.
Current O-line coach Garett Tujague said this week, after witnessing the Cougar offense stumble and bumble against Virginia, that his guys had to man up and play more physical, and he blamed himself that they didn’t.
French would have gone ahead and blamed his players.
Tujague might as well have. He said there would be changes, and there will be: He’s benching last year’s only returning starter — left tackle Ryker Mathews — and replacing him with Michael Yeck, who played right tackle last week. Brock Stringham is moving from right guard to right tackle. Manaaki Vaitai will be at left guard, Terrance Alletto will stay at center, and the search is on for a starter at right guard.
While all that was going down, Bronco Mendenhall cited a need for continuity along the offensive front.
But there is no continuity.
Asked the other day if these problems could be solved with the talent on hand, Tujague said: “Absolutely, 100 percent. Absolutely, it will be fixed.”
But you have to wonder how and how long.
And how after last season’s struggles up front, those struggles persist, still.
Tujague and offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who helps coach the line, have had all of spring ball and fall camp to determine who their best prospects are and, suddenly, after one game, they’re tossing their previous judgments to the wind and trying to repair the damage inside of one week — before the Longhorns roll into town.
On the one hand, that’s bold. On the other, it’s an admission that they heretofore miscalculated what was in the Cougars’ best offensive interests.
“I want to find guys who are going to embrace the hard edge and stand toe to toe with anybody and throw punches,” Tujague said. “That’s what I want. That’s what I’m looking for and we’ll find it. We will find it.”
They’d best hurry.
And even if they do, on account of the unique requirements of sound offensive line play, namely that individuals must step up and “stand toe to toe,” but also be coordinated into a synchronized group mind meld, finding embracers of the hard edge isn’t enough. The whole unit must be, as French said it, brought into harmony.
The old, eccentric longtime assistant who coached under Edwards for 20 years explained some of the intricacies of protecting the quarterback and opening holes. There’s more to it than just firing off on defensive linemen, including a lot of technique, some of which is counterintuitive. He compared effective blocking to everything from fencing to dancing to pulverizing meat.
He emphasized that his 300-pound pupils move their feet, keep their heads up, stay balanced, kick step properly, punch out, all the rudiments, and that the whole thing stay coordinated and cohesive.
To Tujague’s point, French also liked mean, bad-tempered, churlish, beastly linemen who’d just as soon cave in an opponent’s nose as look at it. They just had to move like a concerted troupe of ballerinas while doing so. And, as you’d expect, they couldn’t focus on getting any kind of individual glory because, quite frankly, it wasn’t coming.
Anonymity is not only an O-lineman’s fate, it’s his friend.
It is, in part, because of that unique team-oriented role that the offensive line is the core of any successful outfit, the beacon to which everyone looks for inspiration. Tujague knows that, too.
“They’re the most important part of any team,” he said. “When you look, especially at our offense, look at what we’re doing, when you do it with an attitude that you won’t lose, that you’ll win at all costs, when people see 300-pound men doing that, it’s a lot easier for 180-pound men to buy in and follow.”
But not when 300-pound men are allowing 270-pound defenders to swim by and crush 180-pound teammates.
“The job up front has to get done,” French said, all those years ago. “If not, your offense is dead.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.