Utah football led the Pac-12 in rushing in 2021, but now the offensive line is getting a makeover

Utes need to figure out center position with Nick Ford gone, while right guard has intrigue, options.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham and Utah football players salute Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan during a break in the action, between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

The University of Utah led the Pac-12 in any rushing category worth mentioning last season.

The Utes averaged 216.8 yards per contest, which was good for 13th nationally. They rushed for 3,035 yards, 37 touchdowns and 5.57 yards per attempt. Their 545 rushing attempts represented better than 58% of their total plays run.

Looking ahead to the 2022 season, Utah’s running backs room is loaded, headlined by Tavion Thomas, who rushed for 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. The offensive line, however, is getting a makeover.

Versatile three-time All-Pac-12 lineman Nick Ford, who started at least one game in his career at all five offensive line positions, is gone to the NFL draft after spending most of last season at center. Bam Olaseni, who emerged as arguably the best left tackle in the Pac-12, is also embarking on a professional career. But, as usual at Utah, there is a belief that there is enough depth along the line that Ford and Olaseni leaving should merely be a hiccup.

The good news is that Braeden Daniels returns after an All-Pac-12 season in which he started all 14 games, 11 of them at right tackle — though a position change appears to be at least a legitimate possibility this season.

“Braeden is the leader of that offensive line, he’s the guy that everybody looks to,” Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday afternoon following practice. “He’s playing left tackle exclusively for us right now, which is what we need and he’s doing a good job.

“He is as versatile as Nick. He and Nick are very similar in that regard.”

Daniels is the most-seasoned offensive lineman at Whittingham’s disposal, having started in 39 games. Keeping him at left tackle long term to protect Cam Rising’s blind side makes a lot of sense, although there will be questions on the matter going into fall camp.

Before he was lost for the season in early October to torn knee cartilage, Jaren Kump had made a case as the best tackle on the roster. Per Whittingham, Kump is limited this spring, but is 4-6 weeks away from being 100%. That means he should be healthy in plenty of time before fall camp in August. Assuming full health in time for camp, Kump projects as a healthy favorite to start at one of the two tackle spots.

If Daniels remains in control at left tackle, the battle for right tackle then becomes Kump having to fight off the likes of Falcon Kaumatule and Zereoue Williams, both of whom are greener at the position. Whittingham went as far as to say Tuesday that he could see five or six guys jockeying for that position.

“I’ve practiced so much on both sides that I really feel comfortable on both sides,” said Kump, who started all five games in 2020 at right tackle as a returned missionary. “Honestly, though, I don’t know which one it’s going to be yet.”

Added offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig: “It’s day-by-day with the rehab, but nobody works harder with the rehab. It’s also stealing reps and working the mental side of the game. Jaren does a great job with that, but we have to get him on the field and I look forward to that.”

The only other player besides Ford to start a game at center last season was Paul Maile, which happened three times when Ford kicked outside to left guard while Keaton Bills was hurt. Like Kump, Maile is rehabbing an injury but is expected to be a full participant and get a long look at center once fall camp rolls around.

Whittingham has given no indication that anyone besides Bills is in line at left guard, while right guard seems ready to offer some preseason interest.

Sataoa Laumea started the final 13 games at right guard, but Michael Mokofisi is getting first-team reps. Whittingham has said a number of times, including Tuesday, that the coaching staff likes Mokofisi’s upside.

Whittingham likes his projected offensive line depth all the way to the 10th, maybe even 12th man, but the experience factor or lack thereof, is something to keep an eye on, especially with the Sept. 3 opener at Florida potentially acting as a season-defining game.

Mokofisi has never started a game, Maile has started just four, but has played in 12. Daniels has played in 35 games, including 29 starts, but none of that has come at left tackle.