Offensive tackle is Utah sophomore Nick Ford’s official position. He’s also the self-appointed defender of the Ute offensive line, amid questions that have persisted about this group since March.
Ford’s defense of himself and his teammates revolves around Utah’s highly regarded defensive line. If the offensive linemen are having any success in practice against the likes of Leki Fotu and Bradlee Anae, that can only be a good sign.
All anyone can do between now and the Aug. 29 season opener at BYU is take Ford at his word.
“We’ve been fighting all fall against one of the best defensive lines in the country,” Ford said as Utah prepared for Saturday’s final scrimmage of preseason camp. “So we’re going out and make a statement and then everyone who doubted us can be quiet. … Just wait 'til game day, and find out.”
That’s how much Ford believes in a line that includes senior Darrin Paulo at the other tackle spot, with Orlando Umana at center and redshirt freshman Braeden Daniels at one guard. Playing time at the other guard spot will be split between senior Paul Toala and freshman Johnny Maea, coach Kyle Whittingham said, similar to a shared arrangement that involved Ford land Umana last season.
Ford ended up starting six games in 2018, partly due to then-senior Lo Falemaka’s injury, so he questioned reports during spring practice that listed only two returning starters on the line (Paulo and Umana). His endorsement of the 2019 line’s potential began in March, as Utah looked to replace Falemaka and All-Pac-12 players Jackson Barton and Jordan Agasiva. “We’ve got very capable guys,” he said then. “Just because we’ve had a couple guys leave doesn’t mean anything. With the type of players Utah brings in, it’s not going to make any difference.”
At the time, it seemed likely that junior college transfer Bamidele Olaseni would become a starting tackle, with Ford at guard. Olaseni arrived on campus only last week after completing academic work at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, though, and questions remain about his NCAA eligibility, stemming from his high school days in London, Whittingham said.
Utah hopes to have Olaseni cleared to play in the season opener, but he's unlikely to have a significant role early in the year. Even without him, the offensive line has made a good impression in August.
“It's fun to watch the development of those young kids, even from spring to fall,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who coaches against them. “I really like the progression of those guys.”
Paulo made the preseason All-Pac-12 second team and is expected to extend Ute line coach Jim Harding’s record of having each of his Utah starting tackles drafted into the NFL. Ford has that potential in the coming years and so does Olaseni, once he gets onto the field. If Olaseni ever becomes a starting tackle, Ford could move inside.
Maea played his way into the mix during the summer conditioning program, adding considerable weight to 302 pounds. The East High School product returned from a church mission.
Oregon is widely credited as having the Pac-12′s best offensive line, followed by Washington. Athlon Sports ranked the Ducks’ and Huskies’ lines in the top five nationally; the Pac-12 South’s Arizona State and Arizona also made the top 30.
In public view, Utah’s offensive line showed considerable improvement in the second scrimmage of spring practice after Ford missed the first session with an injury.
The next evidence will come against BYU, when the Ute linemen will be judged by the offense’s production. “Personally, we don’t care what people label us as,” Ford said. “We’re just going to put our heads down and work.”
Utah's starting offensive line:
Center – Orlando Umana, junior, 6-4, 340.
Tackles – Darrin Paulo, senior, 6-5, 315; and Nick Ford, sophomore, 6-5, 324.
Guards – Braeden Daniels, redshirt freshman, 6-4, 300; and Paul Toala, senior, 6-4, 339; or Johnny Maea, freshman, 6-4, 302.