University of Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham has said on more than once occasion that he believes Nick Ford’s NFL future is as an interior lineman, meaning either center, left guard, or right guard.
Whittingham not offering a specific position along the offensive line, but rather multiple options, is apropos when discussing Ford, who has played them all since beginning his Utes career in 2018 as a redshirt freshman. In 30 career games, Ford has started 26 times including 13 times at right guard, six at left guard, four at center, two at right tackle, and once at left tackle.
Those four starts at center came in the final four games of the Utes’ COVID-impacted five-game season in place of injured veteran center Orlando Umana. Ford’s play at center yielded an All-Pac-12 first-team spot, followed by an NFL Draft decision.
During spring practice, Ford told the media his NFL Draft grade came back as a third, maybe fourth-round pick, with a chance to improve his stock to as high as a second-round pick. With that knowledge, Ford decided to put off the NFL for a year, just as teammates Devin Lloyd and Brant Kuithe did.
With Ford back as a fifth-year junior thanks to the NCAA freezing the eligibility clock due to the pandemic, he is projected as Utah’s full-time center this fall. Umana could still see time at the position, but Whittingham gave every indication during the spring that the position belongs to Ford. With the exception of Umana’s 40 career games, none of the Utes’ projected depth chart offensive linemen have more experience than Ford’s 30 games.
In taking a reasonable guess at the five starters along the offensive line, the unit lacks experience in two particular spots, but it certainly has more experience now than it did last fall.
Back then, Jaren Kump, a true freshman and returned missionary, was a first-time starter at right tackle, as was redshirt freshman Sataoa Laumea at right guard. Both guys started all five games in 2020, Laumea picking up an All-Pac-12 second-team selection for his efforts.
Depth charts are to be taken with a grain of salt, with spring practice depth charts getting an extra dose, but Kump was listed at left tackle during the spring, while Simi Moala was at right tackle, where he started 12 games in 2019, earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention status. Moala started the final four games of 2020 at left tackle after Ford kicked inside to center.
One big offensive line question as fall camp looms is what to do at left guard.
Keaton Bills started the first four games in 2020 as a redshirt freshman, with sophomore Braeden Daniels starting the season-finale vs. Washington State. Daniels played in all five games last season, seeing time on the offensive line in four of them. Bills saw a lot of time last season, but Daniels’ 21 career games are triple the number Bills has played in, while all 15 of Daniels’ starts have come at left guard.
Working under the still-too-early assumption of Kump, Daniels, Ford, Laumea and Moala starting, another glaring question is whether or not Bam Olesani can finally break through with a meaningful contribution.
A native of London, England, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Olesani was an NJCAA first-team All-American in 2018 at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, but saw action in just two games in 2019. He played in all five games in 2020, but only on special teams.