BYU’s offensive line has jelled this preseason; now it’s time to take the next step

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Empey. BYU football photo day in Provo on Wednesday Aug. 7, 2019.

ProvoBYU’s James Empey has a goal for himself and his offensive line teammates: remove the asterisk that seemed stuck to the group’s name whenever anyone was talking about the line.

“Last season people would look at us and say, ‘Oh they are good for young guys,” he said.

This year, Empey, the Cougars’ sophomore center, hopes the line is known simply as being good.

“We’ve been working hard,” he said. “Last year we were playing our hardest, but we weren’t always at our best in terms of a line. The main thing for us is to stay focused and be as good as we can be going into the season.”

So far the work seems to be paying off, with offensive line coach Eric Mateos encouraged by what he has seen on the field.

Mateos was hired just a few weeks before spring practice, but the Cougars were able to implement a lot of the new techniques and schemes he wants to use, so in this preseason camp, Mateos has been able to focus on developing his players, he said.

The good news is he believes he has plenty of talent in which to work.

“I’ve never been in a position where we could have eight guys go in and play fur us and we have that depth,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often. What the ceiling is for those guys is a different thing and we need to see if we can get five guys to dominate for us. That is our next step.”

Replacing right tackle Austin Hoyt is a challenge, one that will fall to either of two redshirt freshmen in Harris LaChance or Clark Barrington, but Mateos is seeing talent emerging elsewhere to make him encouraged.

Junior right guard Tristen Hoge and left tackle Brady Christensen have been strong in camp, Mateos said.

“Tristen has surprised me,” he said. “He is playing like an elite national draft prospect level. He was a good player last year, but he is at a different level now. He took the summer workouts serious, working through some kinks on his own, and he is playing really, really well.”

Mateos had a similar impression of Christensen, who he said has gotten better in a short amount of time.

“These are hard working guys,” Mateos said.

Christensen started 13 games last year and the combination of experience and improvement has Mateos encouraged that the line can take care of its No. 1 job, protecting quarterback Zach Wilson.

While still surprisingly solid given a lack of experience in 2018, there were moments last year when the line couldn’t keep Wilson upright, most notably in the 21-16 loss to Boise State when the Broncos sacked Wilson seven times.

Giving the quarterback more time is something Mateos would like to see out of the line.

“It’s not just sacks but unnecessary hits,” he said. “We have to find ways to take the hits off him. I’ve been in games where quarterbacks aren’t sacked that much, but they get knocked around 50 times and that’s worse.”

Empey, true to his positive outlook for 2019, said he believes the line can do right by Wilson.

“We know how important he is,” he said. “We are relying on him and we are making sure we know what we are doing.”