When Riley Nelson’s intended pass for J.J. Di Luigi was tipped into the air and landed fortuitously into the hands of Marcus Mathews at the end of last Friday’s game, a significant drought was broken.
The last time a Cougar tight end had caught a touchdown was when Dennis Pitta scored against Oregon State in the 2009 Las Vegas Bowl. At that time, surely no one thought that the Cougars would play their next 17 games without a tight end scoring.
But the years of recent standout players such as Pitta, Jonny Harline, Andrew George or even Daniel Coats seemed so far away last year while BYU’s freshmen tight ends generally played like, well, freshmen.
Granted, they made strides as the year went on, and there were other struggles on offense that factored into the drought, but it was unheard of for BYU to go a whole season without a touchdown from a tight end.
So, even if Mathews wasn’t intended to catch the game-winning touchdown with seconds left in the game, it was nevertheless a breakthrough.
“It was awesome,” said Austin Holt. “I actually ran up to Coach Doman before the game at the game. I said, ‘We need to get this monkey off our back.’ It was amazing, and it was kind of a picture-perfect ending the way Marcus Mathews caught that touchdown pass, and it was just a great ending. But to have that monkey off our back I think is definitely going to help us propel our game and just get this offense moving.”
Through all 13 games last season, BYU’s tight ends combined to catch 34 passes for 451 yards. As a comparison, in 2009 Pitta had 62 catches for 829 yards and eight touchdowns, while George had 30 catches for 408 yards and five touchdowns
But through only five games so far this season, the tight ends have caught 30 passes for 325 yards. After only 34 catches last year, they are on pace to catch 78 this year as long as they reach a bowl game. And that’s with a somewhat depleted tight end corps, as Mike Muehlmann was moved to defensive end after last season and Devin Mahina is redshirting this year due to a neck injury.
Holt himself has seen a bigger role in the passing game. Last year he caught only four passes for 40 yards, whereas this year so far he has caught seven passes for 120 yards.
So while the tight ends as a whole are averaging fewer yards per reception (although Holt himself is actually averaging more), they are nevertheless catching a lot more passes and have shown to have much more reliable hands. A lot of this has to do with the extra experience they have now as sophomores rather than freshmen.
“I think experience is a big thing, but I think the confidence aspect was the greatest aspect that we have this year that was completely different than last year,” said Holt. “We had no confidence. We made some plays last year, we were okay, but this year you can see a definite difference, and that’s first off with Coach Reynolds and what he’s done with us and the tight end aspect and making us just better players. And also we have confidence with our quarterbacks, with Jake [Heaps] and with Riley [Nelson].”
Having confidence in the quarterback situation may seem unlikely at this point, given how things have gone. The quarterback rotation/controversy of last year seemed to be over and done with as Heaps finished very strong last year and carried that into fall camp. But his stats this season have been meager at best, leading to the coaching staff inserting Nelson late in the Utah State game to provide a spark.
And provide a spark he did, bringing BYU back from an 11-point deficit to win the game.
Holt said he didn’t know whether the offense will see a return of the two-quarterback system, but said he had a strong opinion that the coaches will choose one quarterback by the end of this week.
Holt insisted that the quarterback situation hasn’t created a division among teammates.
“I definitely think we’re a unified team, and speaking with experience from last year’s team, this is a night-and-day difference,” said Holt. “I don’t think we were divided last year by any opinion, but this year’s team, I think we’re unified in a different theme and different aspect. We’re all just better friends, better teammates, and just centered around each other.”
Nevertheless, there was the perception among some people that the offense seemed to play harder last Friday when Nelson was in at quarterback. The assertion that some players were loafing around while Heaps was playing is one that Holt simply doesn’t agree with.
“I think all the players were playing as hard as we could for both quarterbacks,” said Holt. “There was definitely some excitement when Riley came into the game, there was some changes. I think their defense definitely had to do some adjustments on what they were doing, and so that added the excitement of us actually moving the ball. We were down, we had one quarter left to try and win the game, and I think that all tied in with the excitement.”
Holt said that if he were in Heaps’ situation right now, it would definitely motivate him to try and better himself and propel himself to a different level.
It remains to be seen whether Nelson now becomes the starter, but Holt indicated they will be in capable hands if that is the case.
“Riley’s an awesome kind of guy … He’s a very hard worker. He’s never gonna rag on somebody or get somebody down. He’s just an awesome guy and competitor.”
But the sophomore tight end also spoke positively about Heaps.
“I definitely know he’s a good quarterback, he’s a competitor in every aspect, not just football but in every aspect of life.”