Football games are won and lost in the trenches. So with that in mind, we begin our look the at the 2012 version of the Cougars by focusing on the offensive line.
BYU loses one of its best ever, but also returns a good deal of talent and experience up front for next season.
Life Without Matt Reynolds
For the first time in four years, someone other than Matt Reynolds will man the starting left tackle spot in 2012. Reynolds is one of the most talented offensive linemen that we have seen in Provo and will be the biggest loss for BYU on either side of the ball next season.
Rated as a top-10 NFL prospect at tackle by nearly every expert, Matt is likely to be selected in April's draft before the end of the third or fourth round. His helmetless block in the Armed Forces Bowl has further elevated his status in the hearts of BYU fans and the minds of NFL general managers.
Luckily for BYU, the next four-year starter at left tackle appears to be waiting in the wings in redshirt freshman Ryker Mathews (6-6, 313 Fr.). The former American Fork High star and 2011 Army All-American Bowl participant had locked down the backup spot behind Reynolds this past year before going down with a torn plantar plate in his foot just before the start of the season.
Matthews should be back at full strength by the time spring camp rolls around, and will be a virtual lock at left tackle assuming he is healthy. His ability reminds one of former Cougar and two-time NFL Pro Bowl player John Tait.
Michael Yeck (6-8, 286 So.) played in four games as a freshman this past season behind Reynolds. He and Mathews should make for a very solid two-deep at left tackle for years to come and will help lessen the loss of Reynolds along the front line in 2012.
BYU to Turn to Tushaus
The Cougars also lose starting center Terrance Brown to graduation next year. Brown started at center the past two seasons after starting at guard as a sophomore. Terrance has been a solid player in the middle of the offensive line, but he inexplicably struggled with some of his shotgun snaps this past season.
Sophomore-to-be Blair Tushaus (6-2, 280 So.) is the heir apparent at center and was rated as one of the top center prospects in the West when he came out of Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2010. After redshirting his first season, Tushaus ended up seeing action in five games, including the Armed Forces Bowl, as the backup to Brown in 2011.
Starting Guards to Return
The Cougars will also miss the steady services of guard Marco "Moose" Thorson next season. Moose played in every game in 2011 and started in the Armed Forces Bowl for the injured Houston Reynolds.
Houston underwent shoulder surgery in December to repair a torn labrum, but is expected to return to his starting left guard spot in time for fall camp. He played through the pain of the injury for a good portion of the season.
The other starting guard spot should be anchored once again by Braden Hansen (6-6, 313 Sr.). Braden was moved from the left side to the right guard last season, where he was tabbed as a preseason candidate for the Outland Trophy in 2011.
Brock Stringham (6-6, 287 So.) is a good bet to begin next season as the first guard off the bench behind Hansen and Reynolds. Brock played in eight games in 2011 as a redshirt freshman. Walter Kahaiali'i (6-3, 325 Sr.) can play either guard or tackle and could see some significant reps in 2012 as well.
Maanaki Vaitai (6-3, 307 Jr.) and Manu Mulitalo (6-2, 340 So.) are big bodies that can provide help on the interior of the line as well. The Cougars could also get back the services of Ryan Freeman (6-2, 272 Sr.), who has missed the last two seasons due to injury.
Brown Back as Well
In 2012, Braden Brown is expected to enter his third season as the starter at right tackle. Originally recruited by BYU as a tight end/defensive end prospect, Brown is a very good athlete for a right tackle and has a passion for the game to match his athleticism.
Braden's backup in 2011 has been Famika Anae. The redshirt freshman played in four games this past season and has the pedigree to become an outstanding offensive lineman. His father is former BYU offensive coordinator and offensive lineman Robert Anae.
RM's Bolster the Ranks
BYU welcomes three returning missionaries back to the interior of the offensive line in 2012 as well. Fono Vakalahi (6-3, 335 So.) is a promising talent who saw action in four games in 2009 prior to his mission, while Tui Crichton (6-3, 357 Fr.) and Terry Alletto (6-3, 287 Fr.) both redshirted in their first seasons.
Those three offensive linemen are a part of some 14 players that will return from the mission field to join the program for 2012.
Projected Starters for 2012
LT Ryker Matthews (6-6, 313 Fr.)
LG Houston Reynolds (6-2, 296 Jr.)
C Blair Tushaus (6-2, 280 So.)
RG Braden Hansen (6-6, 313 Sr.)
RT Braden Brown (6-6, 301 Sr.)