PROVO — With 19 days left until the BYU football team's 2017 season opener, there are plenty of position battles and depth chart spots to be filled: backup quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, cornerback, with a key player coming off a major knee surgery.
For Tuni Kanuch and the offensive line, their battle is just as physical: who wants to get on the plane?
“We have a ton of guys who are ready to play," said Kanuch, one of three seniors on the line alongside team captain Tejan Koroma and guard Keyan Norman. "Everyone is gritty; competitiveness is not just for the ones. Everyone is trying to travel. Everyone wants to be there.”
Kanuch, Koroma and Norman aren't the only returning starters on BYU's line. Sophomore Thomas Shoaf earned Freshman All-American honors a year ago while starting nine games at right tackle, and he's been moved to left tackle in fall camp. Austin Hoyt, who stayed at right tackle, started two games in 2016, and junior JJ Nwigwe (the moonlight tight end) and redshirt freshman Kieffer Longson all have experience.
Head coach Kalani Sitake said he will play as many linemen as he feels can help the Cougars, which could extend down to newcomers like 350-pound Mango Finau from Hawaii, former Bountiful High standout Brady Christensen and former Utah signee James Empey from American Fork, all freshmen.
“I liked how they are battling in the trenches," Sitake said. "That’s a deep group, and we are able to run the ball and throw the ball, and that’s because the O-line does their job."
Kanuch added he will welcome any offensive lineman who plays physical — something that hasn't been in short supply through the first 10 days of training camp.
“This is probably one of the most physical camps I’ve been a part of, and it’s been fun," Kanuch said. "It’s competitive, so when a guy from across the line is talking crap, you don’t want to let him beat you. It’s been great."
The O-line has to be physical, too, when it lines up against a defensive set that includes recently returned defensive end Sione Takitaki, former BYU basketball center Corbin Kaufusi and 410-pound freshman Motekiai Langi — already an Internet sensation that has spawned his own parody account on Twitter.
"He’s a big dude," Kanuch said of Langi. "He’s still learning how to play, but he’s gonna be good. He’s heavy, he’s strong, and you probably won’t go against someone as heavy as him.
“They’re getting better (on the defensive line), and we’re getting better going against those guys.”
Still, with three weeks left of training camp, Kanuch is as eager as anyone to get better for a schedule that includes three-straight Top 25 opponents in Louisiana State, Utah and Wisconsin after the home opener against FCS foe Portland State.
“It’s about getting better every day," Kanuch said. "We can never be where we want to be; we always want to take the next step.”
Offense efficient in Saturday's scrimmage
The Cougars held a closed-door scrimmage Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer said the quarterbacks stood out, completing 70 percent of their passes as a unit in varying degrees of live action.
An announcement of a backup quarterback, which will likely come between incumbents Beau Hoge and Koy Detmer Jr., could come as soon as next week, the offensive coordinator said.
"We’re getting to where we may have to name a backup in the next week, or just have a couple of guys ready to go based on the situation," Detmer said. "Beau’s doing well, but he still needs reps. Once the season starts, they won’t get as many. He’s athletic, you can see him make plays with his legs.
"Koy understands it, and knows where to go with it."
Sitake also mentioned another standout on offense who could be mixing up reports in the running back room.
“Kavika Fonua did a great job at running back," said Sitake, adding Fonua to the list of committee running backs Squally Canada, KJ Hall, Ula Tolutau, and Riley Burt battling for playing time.
“I thought the offense did much better, especially for the first time being love. There were a couple of mistakes, but better than I anticipated. They got better throughout the scrimmage.”
Sitake on Big DL Mo Langi..."When Mo wants to go, he goes where he wants to go."— Dick Harmon (@Harmonwrites) August 8, 2017
Mo Langi Watch
In addition to being a 410-pound reserve defensive tackle who pesters the O-line in practice, the former rugby player from Tonga has been catching on to American football, as well.
Langi saw extensive work with the backups during the media viewing portion of practice, and he rushed quarterback Beau Hoge from a three-point stance on multiple occasions — even combing for a few tackles.
“Our linemen are tough, but he’s big and strong," Sitake said of the freshman. "It’s hard to block him; when Mo wants to go, he usually goes wherever he wants. The goal is to teach him to do that every time.”