Kragthorpe: Utes' offensive linemen will keep improving, as the program's NFL impact shows

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Chris Detrick Salt Lake Tribune Utah offensive line coach Jim Harding (hands on knees) is developing a reputation as a producer for NFL talent

Utah’s production through two games is creating the impression that offensive coordinator Troy Taylor just might be the answer Utes coach Kyle Whittingham has been seeking for several years.

Amid the constant turnover in that position, Whittingham already got lucky. One of his hirings fortuitously gave him a bonus, with Jim Harding arriving as the offensive line coach in 2014 to join coordinator Dave Christensen.

Harding’s four departed starters from last season all made NFL opening-day rosters as rookies, a development unlike anything in the state’s college football history. The qualifiers are that only one of them, Denver tackle Garett Bolles, has appeared in a game and one was released this week. Yet to have four players initially make teams is proof of Harding’s work — and also illustrates his challenge in building a new group with guard Salesi Uhatafe as the only returning starter.

The Utes are averaging 464.5 yards of total offense, although the linemen have been somewhat inconsistent. They’ve allowed three sacks in two games and got limited yardage from the running game (other than quarterback Tyler Huntley) last week vs. BYU.

GOING TO THE LEAGUE <br>Utah’s offensive linemen produced by Jim Harding and drafted by NFL teams. <br>Year • Player • Team • Round <br>2015 • Jeremiah Poutasi • Tennessee • 3 <br>2017 • Garett Bolles • Denver • 1 <br>2017 • Isaac Asiata • Miami • 5 <br>2017 • J.J. Dielman • Cincinnati • 5 <br>2017 • Sam Tevi • L.A. Chargers • 6

Harding’s record shows his linemen will get better. Having those four players — Bolles, Isaac Asiata, Sam Tevi and J.J. Dielman — drafted in the first six rounds in April is evidence of “the way he develops players,” Whittingham said. “It’s obvious those guys had natural ability and raw talent, but as a coach, you’ve got to get that out of them. … I see the same thing starting to happen, where he just has an ability to get the best out of his guys.”

Whittingham created a vacancy by firing his line coach when Christensen wanted to bring Harding with him from Wyoming. Christensen stayed for one season of mixed reviews before moving to Texas A&M as line coach. He’s now an Arizona State consultant, but Harding has remained in place and the Utes have benefited from his work.

In their one season together, Harding helped Bolles become a first-round pick as a junior. That helps explain the convergence of four draftees from one position group, among five offensive line starters.

“It‘s awesome to see,” Harding said last week.

As Utah’s line coach, Ron McBride had three players drafted in 1982. Darryl Haley, Wayne Jones and Jack Campbell (one game) all appeared in the NFL. Steve Clark also played as an offensive lineman in the league, although he was a defensive lineman at Utah.

BYU’s three senior linebackers were drafted in 1986. Kurt Gouveia and Leon White enjoyed extended NFL careers, while Cary Whittingham’s only action came as a replacement player during the 1987 strike.

So Harding could have his own distinction as a position coach if all four of his rookies appear in games. Asiata’s season opener with Miami was postponed due to weather and Tevi (Los Angeles Chargers) and Dielman (L.A. Rams) were inactive for their games. The Rams then released Dielman, whom they had claimed on waivers from Cincinnati last week, reportedly intending to re-sign him to the practice squad.

The advancement of his former teammates is encouraging to Utes tackle Jackson Barton and validation of his coach’s methods. “Coach Harding is a perfectionist,” Barton said. “He expects us to be perfect, but in real life you can never be perfect. He’s really hands-on with us, really patient with us. … He’s just a really good coach, always checking up on us on and off the field.”

Kyle Whittingham likes the way Harding keeps his players accountable. “You teach and you demand; those are the two things you look for in a coach,” he said.

And that’s why Harding’s linemen will improve as this season goes along, in the tradition of the players they’re replacing.