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BYU’s offensive line was the unsung hero of last year’s 11-1 success, but can the Cougars replicate that this season?

The Cougars lost three of their starters to the NFL and have a new offensive line coach in Darrell Funk.

(Jaren Wilkey|Courtesy of BYU Athletics) All the quarterbacks vying for the starting gig left void by the departure of Zach Wilson line up for drills during the first day of spring football, March 1.

Last year, the BYU offensive line was the unsung hero of the Cougars’ 11-1 season. Without that group fighting in the trenches, Zach Wilson wouldn’t have had the success that led him to become the No. 2 overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft.

But that same success left a dent in BYU’s offensive line.

First off, former offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and former offensive line coach Eric Mateos both left for the same positions at Baylor. Then, the Cougars lost three of their regular starters to the NFL.

Since then, Darrell Funk has taken over coaching duties for the O-line and, while he’s new to BYU, he knows how the program works. Before the position became available, Funk had watched almost all of BYU’s games and was fired up about some of the things the Cougars’ staff was doing.

And, as a former Colorado State player, he used to play against BYU during the Cougars’ golden years in the Western Athletic Conference.

“A lot of the things I had done before or have been a part of staff that runs those plays and different things,” Funk said. “But it was just fun to look at that. And then, when I got involved and started talking to Aaron Roderick about the job and everything, I had studied them and I knew what they were good at. I knew the system pretty much, and it kind of made a seamless transition into trying to get the job.”

Even though Funk comes in with 30 years of experience and with a deep knowledge of BYU football, the Cougars still lost some top talent that will need to be replaced.

Brady Christensen was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the NFL draft, while Chandon Herring and Tristen Hoge signed free-agent contracts with the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets, respectively.

Luckily for Funk, due to injury or illness, the staff rotated some of the linemen throughout the season. So, a few of the returning players have sizable playing time and even experience as starters for the Cougars.

During spring practices, Funk continued moving guys around, trying to figure out where each player will fit best to make up for those three guys who moved on.

“We went through spring ball with guys in different places, and mix and matched them a little bit — not a lot,” Funk said. “You have kind of an idea going into the summer and into fall camp of where guys will be. We’ve got flexibility with the guys that have played tackle between Blake Freeland and Harris LaChance, that they could both play either side. You could make an argument for each … but it’s not final.”

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

One position Funk is already certain about is center; That spot’s going to James Empey.

Empey is arguably the offensive line’s most gifted and experienced player. The American Fork product has been with the program since 2017 and has racked up the most starts among those returning.

While the one spot is secured, Funk still doesn’t have the rest of the line figured out. The depth chart is partially there, but Funk doesn’t know with 100% certainty who his starters will be.

Freeland and Clark Barrington, with all of their experience, should also be toward the top of the competition.

“I think in this case, it’s a pretty good problem because it means we’ve got a couple of other guys, in addition to whoever would be the five starters that are really pushing and really working to get better,” Funk said. “Maybe seven or eight guys that could be in that starting lineup.”

When it comes to what Funk hopes to see his offensive line accomplish come fall, he said he wants the offense to be able to run the football to win, which the Cougars showed they could do consistently last year. As far as the pass game, he wants his group to keep the quarterback clean and upright.

He also wants his players to play with toughness.

“I know that sounds kind of obvious — yeah, you want to run the ball and you want to protect, but how you do that is you just work to become sound on your one-on-one techniques,” Funk said. “... The consistency of how we play is just as important as how hard and how hard we play.”

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