Utah Football: O-line faces tough challenge in Florida season opener

Utah’s offensive line wasn’t doing well in 2021, but by the end of the season, the O-line was one of the strengths of the Pac-12 championship-winning team.

Offensive line coach Jim Harding knows that having a cohesive, consistent group in the trenches right away is a top priority as the 2022 season begins, especially in the season opener against the SEC’s Florida on Sept. 3 in Gainesville.

“I recognize that we didn’t play very well up front at the start of the year. A lot of it had to do with boys getting pushed around. It’s going to be important to get these guys in place right away,” Harding said. “We recognize the first game we have this year. The sooner we can get these five guys playing together, getting used to each other, will only make us better in the long run.”

What did left tackle Braeden Daniels learn from last season?

“What I want to take away from last year is that it’s not how you start, it’s how you end,” he said. “Coach Harding and all of us evaluated ourselves and looked in the mirror. We looked at what the problem was and what we needed to fix. That’s something we need to do this year. We know we have Florida in our first game. We look forward to that.”

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig liked what he saw of the O-line during spring training.

“It’s starting to solidify with the first team and second team, trying to develop that continuity that was such a big part of our midseason push,” he said. “We had the same five guys playing most of the time. We will try to focus on that in the future.”

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The Utah coaches like the depth they have on the O-line despite losing center Nick Ford and attacking Bamidele Olaseni.

“We have a lot of good young offensive linemen in the program,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We lost our left tackle, Bam Olaseni, and Nick Ford who played such good football for us. We have a lot of talent and the depth down the offensive line is solid. That’s what we do coaches who develop talent. I’m sure Jim Harding will do well.”

Whittingham added that left guards Keaton Bills and Michael Mokofisi “played their best football this spring … they’re absolutely ready to play for us.”

Center Paul Maile and tackle Jaren Kump missed spring practice due to injuries, but both are expected to be ready this fall.

“Johnny Maea did a good job moving into the middle and is starting to consolidate that position. Braeden Daniels solidified in the left tackle,” Whittingham said. “Falcon (Kaumatule) had a really good pen on the right tackle. Jaren Kump will be back this fall. That’s a position he played. We feel like we’re going to have 10 high quality guys with a few extra guys that will continue to develop.”

Others in the mix are Sataoa Laumea and Zereoue Williams.

Kaumatule, a sophomore, has made great strides since joining the program.

“Falcon is a guy who never played O-Line before he came here. He only played D-end and a little bit of tight end. So he’s gotten better every year,” Harding said. “He got a lot more reps this spring. It’s not always the same error.

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“There is a level of experience that he sees something and reacts faster. He has really good strength stats in the weight room. It was never a physical problem. It was just a lack of experience. He did a good job putting things together this spring.”

Harding is optimistic about Kump’s development.

“Jaren is dealing with two fairly serious injuries. He’s still doing everything he can. He has a great attitude and he pulls his own cock out. He’s a guy who will be somewhere in the mix. From where? I don’t know,” he said. “We have to solve this piece of the puzzle immediately. But in terms of attitude and work ethic, he’s great. He’s a great kid. He’ll bust his ass to put himself in a position to be a factor this fall.

Harding said the Spring Ball is a good place to start, but there’s still work to be done in the off-season.

“It was a lot of really good competition. I think the kids are getting better, but there are certainly some things we need to do to get better and things that we can hopefully improve on… throughout the summer.”

For Harding, it’s all about consistency – starting with the season opener.

“The guys we have right now have been playing in the same position for most of spring,” he said. “We’re going to add two guys, Jaren and Paul, who get thrown into that equation. The goal is to get these guys in place right away.”

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham watches the action

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham watches the action on field behind the offense during the University of Utah Red and White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 23, 2022. Whittingham likes how himself the offensive line developed as well as its depth.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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