When thinking of BYU greats advancing to the NFL, the position that comes to the forefront of the mind is quarterback. Definitely, BYU has its share of NFL quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame., but the majority of the BYU alumni that play in the NFL aren’t throwing the ball. They’re fighting in the trenches.
The offensive and defensive lines sometimes seem to be forgotten, when in reality, they offer some of the most important talents on the field. Their contributions cannot be overstated.
The offensive line returns three starters from the 2011 season, a group that didn’t allow a sack over a five game span. The line also helped the offense to rank fifth in the nation on third down conversion at 51.9 percent. Regardless, the returning starters say there is still much to work on.
“There’s always individual technique you can fix and perfect,” junior center Houston Reynolds said. “I’ve been around football my whole life, and I’ve always been told you can take an all-pro NFL guy, and tweak his technique, and correct a little bit of footwork, his hand placement and hat placement.”
In addition to Reynolds, the line returns seniors Braden Hansen and Braden Brown at guard and tackle respectively.
“Today was the first day where I feel like that group that’s going to help us this year got to get together and start to build a unique chemistry,” Reynolds said.
The offensive line faces a unique challenge of protecting senior quarterback Riley Nelson, who is known for his mobility and scrambling outside of the pocket, especially when pressured, to make his throws and sometimes to take off down field. Nelson finished the previous season ranked second on the team in rushing yards, picking up 503 yards on 88 carries and a touchdown.
“The challenges are you never know where (Nelson’s) at,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes he bounces and rolls and its like playing basketball with a moving basket and sometimes you’re in the wrong position because he moves. But sometimes, it does help you. It’s harder for them to come smoking off the ball and do a hard core pass rush. It makes it difficult for the defense but it does offer challenges. I think we’re ready to meet those challenges.”
The defensive line returns all three starters from last season in their base 3-4 scheme. Eathyn Manumaleuna, Romney Fuga and Ian Dulan all are seniors this season, which should help them transition easily, with knowledge of the plays and chemistry between them.
Manumaleuna led the line with 33 tackles, with the linebacker corps caused the most damage in the backfield. In addition to the front three, the Cougars also have two other seniors in Russell Tialavea and Simote Vea and junior Mike Muehlmann that may contribute on the rotation.
The two lines have a pedigree of star players being sent to the NFL. Both the offensive and defensive lines boast three players who are currently on NFL team’s rosters. On defense, Hebron Fangupo is playing for the Texans, Brett Keisel is a starter for the Steelers and John Denney, who played defensive end for the Cougars, is the current long snapper for the Dolphins. On the offensive line, Ray Feinga is also on the Dolphins’ roster, while brothers Dallas and Matt Reynolds are playing for the Eagles and the Panthers respectively. They are the brothers of current center Houston Reynolds.
In addition to the current players, there are many other former Cougars that have played in the NFL in the trenches, including John Tait, Ryan Denney, Travis Hall, Chris Hoke, Trevor Matich and Jason Buck. These successes in the trenches can set a precedent for the current BYU players.
“We have a rich tradition here at BYU,” Reynolds said. “We have always been dominant. We have to be responsible and on top of your game and you have to be sharp. You come in and you inherit that responsibility. You see guys who have come in and have been successful at that. That network and connection to guys who have gone on to play in the NFL day-to-day prepares guys and makes them realize what it takes to inherit the next level.”