Nick Ford can do the math. He knows that if Utah's offensive line lost three starters and has three starters returning, that adds up to one too many linemen.
Even so, the sophomore thinks of himself as a starter, then and now. And he has no doubt the Utes will field a strong offensive line in 2019, even with co-captain Lo Falemaka and All-Pac-12 players Jackson Barton and Jordan Agasiva having graduated.
Partly due to Falemaka’s injury in October, Ford started six games at left guard last season. The school’s spring football prospectus doesn’t name him among returning starters, because he started fewer than half of Utah’s 14 games.
“I don’t know why people say I’m not ‘coming back,’” Ford said. “I played over 600 snaps, so let’s get that out of the way. We’ve got very capable guys. Just because we’ve had a couple guys leave doesn’t mean anything. With the type of players that Utah brings in, it’s not going to make any difference.”
That’s not to say the line is anywhere near solidified, as the Utes staged their sixth session of spring practice Saturday. Mo Unutoa is listed as a starting tackle in the initial depth chart. He’s now in the process of transferring (so is senior running back Armand Shyne, coach Kyle Whittingham confirmed). Amid injuries to other players, returned missionary Keaton Bills moved from defense to offense this week and practiced as a first-team guard.
Utah expects junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni to become a starting tackle in August, and a couple of freshmen may be among the top eight or nine linemen. Yet the Utes have some experience with Ford, center Orlando Umana and tackle Darrin Paulo, and redshirt freshman Braeden Daniels is promising. They’re the centerpieces of Ford’s optimistic outlook for his position group, and he expects to improve.
He’s angry he didn’t receive any All-Pac-12 mention, yet critical of his play at times. “I could have performed way better,” Ford said. “There’s a lot of stuff that personally made me mad, mistakes I did.”
Line coach Jim Harding said, “He's got to work on those fundamentals and techniques, but he's got a bright future.”
Ford has practiced at tackle and guard this month and is determined to become proficient at all five positions. That's the modern approach to offensive line play, with coaches trying to use their five best players, almost regardless of where they line up. Ford also is conscious of improving his body. He says he's getting stronger and others say he appears more trim, although he said, “I don't know if that's the case.”
He weighs 313 pounds, down slightly from 315 last season. That’s nearly twice as much as he weighed as a high school freshman, when he was a 5-foot-8, 160-pound receiver in California. Ford came to Utah as a defensive lineman. So did Bills, who moved to offense when injuries and Unutoa’s departure led coaches to look for line candidates, after the players returned from the school’s spring break.
Bills' name was the first one that came up, Whittingham said, because he also played offense at Corner Canyon High School. “For the time being, that's where he's going to spend 100 percent of his time,” Whittingham said. “He looked pretty natural at it.”
Shyne was Utah’s No. 2 running back last season and started the final five games after Zack Moss was injured. Moss is sidelined for the spring, leaving Utah with scholarship players Devonta’e Henry-Cole, Devin Brumfield and TJ Green in what is basically a one-back offensive scheme. Freshman backs Jordan Wilmore and Micah Bernard will arrive on campus this summer. “So we’ll be just fine,” Whittingham said.