Provo • Last week, the BYU Cougars' offensive line saw a minor, but important change-up.
Instead of James Empey taking the field as the Cougars' center, a seemingly new face went out in his place. Empey, who had started in every game of his career, riding a 28-game streak, got injured during the Troy game the week prior.
Instead, Joe Tukuafu made the snaps — his first career start at center — and played in his first complete game since 2014.
Tukuafu wasn’t even the second-string center — that role was on Tristen Hoge. But Hoge is out battling pneumonia and wasn’t able to come back to action against Louisiana Tech.
On Saturday, when No. 15 BYU hosts UTSA, coaches will make a game-time decision as to who will get the start between Empey and Tukuafu. Coaches said Empey is closer to returning to action than Hoge is, but Tukuafu may still play a vital role at center on Saturday.
“I’m really, really pleased with what Joe did,” offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said. “You know, he’s grown so much as a person and a player the last couple of years and I’ve seen him kind of through his ups and downs. But for him to step into that moment was a big deal.”
Tukuafu’s journey is a long, storied one.
Initially a tight end at East High School in Salt Lake City, Tukuafu signed a National Letter of intent to play football at Utah State back in 2014. After graduating, Tukuafu served a two year church mission in Cordoba, Argentina.
However, upon arrival, he decided he wanted to play at BYU for coach Kalani Sitake, who had been the first one to recruit the tight end when he was the defensive coordinator at Utah.
Utah State denied his release, forcing Tukuafu to sit out another season and take classes at Utah Valley for a semester before enrolling at BYU in January 2017.
“I’m just grateful to BYU, the institution as a whole,” Tukuafu said. “I’ve had my ups and downs here … But I’m grateful for the coaching staff. They stayed by my side through every step, especially Kalani, coach Grimes, coach [Steve] Clark, coach [Eric] Mateos. Those are the people that really helped me in being here and where I’m at today.”
The BYU coaching staff also helped Tufuaku transition from tight end to the offensive line. For Grimes, the decision to do so was simple: Tufuaku grew out of the tight end position.
Early on in his BYU career Tufuaku continued playing some tight end because there was a necessity — the Cougars needed depth. But once that got sorted, Tufuaku and the coaches started brainstorming how to get him on the O-line.
“Coach Mateos was the one that really pushed for it hard,” Grimes said. “He spent a lot of time talking to him and told him that he felt like he could really be a great guy there, and he was also the one that said not only did he think he would be a good lineman, but he said really early on that he would be a good center. And has done a good job at developing.”
Grimes, who has coached at 10 different universities throughout his career, said he believes BYU does a better job than other programs at being able to move players around to different positions, even on opposite sides of the ball.
“Kalani is very open to that and always encourages us to try to do our best to find the guy at home,” Grimes said.
That versatility has helped the Cougars throughout the season and could continue to help BYU against UTSA should Empey still not be ready to return.
Tukuafu has been studying the UTSA defensive line — possibly the Roadrunners' strongest asset — closely.
“I see a lot of twitchiness,” Tukuafu said. “I see a lot of physicality, especially their nose tackle No. 1. I see a lot of people that love to move around. They really love to move around. They love to pass rush and they have a lot of motor. I have a lot of respect for them after watching film.”
NO. 15 BYU VS. UTSA
At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Kickoff » Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
TV » ESPN2
Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius 143.
Records » BYU 3-0; UTSA 3-1
Series » First meeting
About BYU » The game against UTSA takes place during BYU’s Homecoming Week. Coach Kalani Sitake is 3-1 in Homecoming games. … The Cougars are facing their second consecutive Conference USA opponent. … Zach Wilson is coming off a near perfect performance, throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns (five touchdowns total) on 24 of 26 passing. … BYU is ranked No. 1 in total offense and No. 1 in total defense. ... Saturday’s game will once again be played with no fans in the stadium.
About UTSA » The Roadrunners are making their second-ever visit to the state of Utah, previously playing at Southern Utah on Sept. 17, 2011. … UTSA is tied with Cincinnati and Syracuse for most interceptions in the FBS with seven and stands in third in the nation with nine total takeaways. … Sophomore running back Sincere McCormick leads the FBS in rushing yards (527) and ranks second in rushing yards per game (131.8).