Jim Harding goes through this process every year. With five offensive linemen taking the field, it is inevitable that a coach would come into preseason camp needing to find one or more replacements.
This season just feels different, because the rest of Utah’s offensive personnel have so much experience. The Utes need the line to come together quickly if they intend to justify all of the favorable forecasts for them in 2019.
“I understand the concern out there,” Harding said Thursday, after Utah's second practice, “because a lot of people don't know the names.”
He's confident about the group, though, and Ute coach Kyle Whittingham is a big believer in Harding. That should be comforting.
“He's as good as there is, and he'll find a way to get it done,” Whittingham said.
Harding is a “great teacher, connects with his players; they respect him, they believe in him,” Whittingham added. “He's literally a brilliant guy. He's so meticulous and thorough and smart.”
Whittingham, who personally coaches Utah’s specialists, has the toughest job on the staff this month, needing a kicker and punter to meet the program’s standards set by former stars Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky. Then comes first-year linebackers coach Colton Swan, who must replace Cody Barton and Chase Hansen, a chore made more difficult by Manny Bowen’s retirement this week.
Harding is in the conversation for the most important staff member of August, though. If the Utes expect running back Zack Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley to thrive as seniors, the offensive linemen are vital.
Darrin Paulo is the only lineman who’s clearly established at one position, having moved from right to left tackle as the replacement for three-year starter Jackson Barton. The preseason depth chart also has senior Paul Toala at left guard, senior Orlando Umana at center, redshirt freshman Braeden Daniels at right guard and sophomore Nick Ford at right tackle.
In this era of college football, most linemen are expected to play multiple positions as coaches try to get the best five players on the field. Umana and Ford join Paulo as definite starters, but they could move around, depending on which other two players emerge.
Utah acquired graduate transfers Noah Osur-Myers (Washington State) and Alex Locklear (Marshall) after spring practice to provide depth, with the chance to compete for bigger roles.
At various stages of the offseason, junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni looked like a starting tackle. But the 6-foot-7, 332-pound player, described as “freakishly athletic” by his former coach at Garden City (Kan.) CC, is not expected to arrive at Utah until Wednesday or later after completing academic work. That would leave him little time in August to adjust to Power Five football. Utah is awaiting word about whether Olaseni has a redshirt year available, after he played amateur football in his native London.
Five offensive tackles who have started games for Harding over the past five seasons have been drafted into the NFL. Paulo, who made the preseason All-Pac-12 second team, is likely to continue that trend in 2020 and Ford, a third-year sophomore, also has NFL potential.
Harding is a positive consequence of Whittingham’s occasionally impulsive hiring of offensive coordinators. In 2014, Whittingham demoted Dennis Erickson and hired longtime friend Dave Christensen, formerly Wyoming’s head coach. Christensen brought Harding with him from the Cowboys staff in what proved to be a major upgrade.
Christensen stayed one year at Utah; he’s now Arizona State’s offensive line coach. Harding is starting his sixth season, now with the title of assistant head coach after being the co-offensive coordinator with Aaron Roderick in 2015 and ’16.
The linemen, including the newcomers, like his coaching style.
Harding “knows how to keep us the standard, but he's not going to belittle us,” Osur-Myers said.
“He genuinely knows what he’s talking about, you can see that,” Locklear said.
Five offensive tackles who have started games for Utah over the past five seasons have been drafted into the NFL (listed by year drafted):
2015 – Jeremiah Poutasi, Tennessee, third round
2017 – Garett Bolles, Denver, first round
2017 – J.J. Dielman, Cincinnati, fifth round
2017 – Sam Tevi, Los Angeles Chargers, sixth round
2019 – Jackson Barton, Indianapolis, seventh round