By Brandon Gurney
PROVO — It’s the 2021 BYU football season all over again.
At least that’s the hope and promise for those involved with the Cougar offensive line two weeks into the spring practice session.
The 2021 season saw the Cougars enter without the services of standout starters such as Brady Christensen, who was drafted in the third round by the Carolina Panthers, along with Tristen Hoge and Chandon Herring, causing some trepidation regarding the front lines overall play.
Suggestions that the BYU offensive line may provide a similar or even improved product for 2021 was likely dismissed by many, much like some showed surprise when BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick suggested the 2023 offensive line could form an improved product from a year ago.
Of course all of this is due to the departures of Blake Freeland and Harris LaChance to hopeful NFL careers, and the transfers of both Clark Barrington and Campbell Barrington to Baylor.
But enter notable transfers such as Paul Maile (Utah), Weylin Lapuaho (Utah State) and Ian Fitzgerald (Missouri State), along with some notable returning parts has both Cougar coaches and players optimistic.
“There’s a lot of new faces in the room, so there’s a learning curve, but I’ve been really happy with how things are going,” said junior Connor Pay, who is the most-experienced returning BYU offensive lineman. “…We’re confident and I relate it to the (2021) year for us — we all were that backup unit, and no one thought we were going to do very well.”
But Pay stepped in and stepped up, along with several others, to more than supplement for the personnel losses incurred after the 2020 season.
“We have guys who have been doing the work as backups,” Pay said. “We also have guys who haven’t been doing it, and need to step it up, but overall, as a group, I think we’re progressing and getting to that point where it won’t look like we’re a fine-tuned group in the spring, but…we’re on track right now.”
Caught up with BYU Offensive Line Coach, Darell Funk Yesterday!— Benjamin Criddle (@CriddleBenjamin) March 17, 2023
Find out who’s standing out along the offensive line through the first week and half of spring football.#BYU #BYUFootball #ESPN960 #GoCougs pic.twitter.com/bi9zFMUSpP
Perhaps the biggest addition to this year’s BYU offensive line will be Paul Maile, who is a graduate transfer from Utah after starting for two straight seasons.
Maile will sit out the spring practice session due to injury, but will be a full go come fall with Pay readily impressed with what he’s seen.
“I have a great relationship with Paul already,” Pay said. “We spend a lot of time together in the film room and we’ll see what coaches want to do in terms of how they want to play us — whatever is best for the team. But obviously Paul is a great addition and he’s already been able to show leadership.”
Maile started at center for the Utes, the same spot Pay manned for the Cougars last season, giving coaches some options on where to employ both players for the season, although both are expected to start.
As for what Maile brings to the team, Pay noted his contributions have already been notable.
“He obviously brings leadership and a mindset of how to play the game and how to practice,” Pay said. “We have a lot of young guys who haven’t repped with the 1s before…and so to have someone like Paul, who has been in that scenario — he knows how hard he needs to practice and how hard everyone needs to practice to get better. It’s been nice to have someone with the mindset on how to play the offensive line at an elite level, which is one of the most challenging things to do.”
SORTING OUT THE REST
While Maile and Pay are both likely to start along the interior line, with Kingsley Suamataia transitioning over to left tackle after starting at right tackle a season ago, there’s still some left to be sorted out this spring.
So far most of the starting reps at right tackle have been taken by JUCO transfer Lisala Tai (6-foot-7, 330 pounds) with Brayden Keim (6-8, 310 Jr.) also seeing plenty of reps with the 1s. Lapuaho (6-4, 310 So.), Fitzgerald (6-5, 310 Jr.) and Tyler Little (6-7, 295) are all expected to contribute along with as many three unmanned additions that look to join the team by the time fall practices roll around, according to BYU offensive line coach Darrell Funk.
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