When thinking of BYU’s 2019 offensive line, it seemed like the group took two steps forward and one step back.

The Cougars compiled 5,749 total offense yards in 2019 — more than 1,000 more yards than the 2018 season. BYU saw a slight improvement in third-down conversions, but dropped in fourth-down conversions and struggled to get to the red zone.

But, before the pandemic shut down spring practices, offensive line coach Eric Mateos believed he saw a growth in his group — a more unified offensive line, which would translate to better results on the field.

“I use the phrase that we need to ‘operate as one’ and I thought during the spring practices that is what I saw,” Mateos said. “Another [observation] would be, being physical as one. Sometimes you have one or two guys that are standing out with their effort and their physicality, but I really felt like in the spring we took a step in the opportunities that we had to look like a physical group and a physical unit rather than just one player. I want it to be physical and gritty and I think we are on our way.”

It’s only normal that the O-line is showing more unity, especially because the number of returners in the group.

The Cougars return eight starters on offense, including linemen All-American candidates Brady Christensen and James Empey.

Christensen was graded No. 12 (86.9) by Pro Football Focus in 2019 and is ranked the No. 20 overall returning lineman in 2020. The redshirt junior has started every game at left tackle.

“Brady is a very high-level pass blocker,” Mateos said. “Pro Football Focus labeled him as one of the highest-level pass blockers in the country and he is. Last summer, we worked on his set and changed his set up a little bit to give himself more opportunities to be physical in pass protection and I think that really helped him.”

Empey is the No. 10 returning offensive lineman nationally and the anchor of an offensive line was ranked No. 12 as a unit in 2019 by PFF. The 6-foot-4 lineman is the No. 1 returning center in FBS by PFF over the last two seasons.

Empey has started all 26 games of his career.

When it comes to the redshirt junior center, Mateos said Empey has a good understanding of body positioning — something that’s underrated for a center, but is important.

“That is critical when you are the one that is closest to the defensive line because a lot of people don’t realize that all the other o-linemen are 2 feet back from the line of scrimmage,” Mateos said. “So being able to be there and have short-area quickness, and understand body leverage is really important for a center and having elite football IQ, which he has.”

And while the offensive line also suffered through its fair share of injuries, it could prove helpful as every player who started in a game in 2019 is back this year.

“That’s huge,” Christensen said. “I mean, we have five of us in a game at all times. You have to have a lot of continuity with each other, so now that we’ve had a couple of seasons with most of us in the game, it helps a ton. You know what everyone’s doing, you know how to communicate with each other and it shows that you’re all on the same page.”

The unity and camaraderie within the group has only increased since the pandemic started.

While the offensive line — and team — were unable to finish spring practices and were not allowed on campus for a couple of months (until voluntary workouts were allowed June 1), players still kept the usual football mentality through these unprecedented times.

It hasn’t always been easy – Christensen said “it’s definitely been tricky” – but what has helped is the group’s combined experience.

“I’m grateful that we have played together for a lot, for a few years, because we’re a very close group — one of the closest groups I’ve ever been in,” Christensen said. “So, even during quarantine and the pandemic, we’ve stayed close and talking all the time and just discussing football. It’s helped us a lot and we’re just preparing like we’re going to have a season. Obviously, no one knows what’s going to happen this year, but we’re just preparing as normal right now, trying to get bigger and faster and stronger and get to know the offense better.”