By Nate Crain
It’s not easy to replace the NCAA all-time leader in career yards for a tight end. After the 2009 football season when Dennis Pitta graduated and got drafted by the Baltimore Ravens the BYU football coaches learned that lesson first hand. When a team loses a great player, the next step is to identify amongst its personnel who has the talent and capacity to take over the tradition of excellence and in ideal circumstances you already have a player identified who has been groomed for the position in advance.
In BYU’s case, Pitta’s primary backup in both 2008 and 2009, Andrew George, also graduated after the 2009 season. The 3rd string tight end in 2008, Kaneakua Friel, left for his mission following that season. The 3rd string tight end in 2009, Braden Brown, was switched to offensive tackle a position better suited to his talents. This turnover in personnel left the proverbial “cupboard” bare of experienced playmakers at the tight end position.
BYU had recruited five freshmen on its roster to vie for Pitta’s coveted role of star tight end for the 2010 season. It’s unclear whether it was anticipated that all five would be competing simultaneously as freshmen. The missionary program at BYU makes planning several years in advance a logistical nightmare. Four of the tight ends in 2010 who got playing time were returned missionaries, whereas one player graduated from high school and then redshirted. It’s highly probable that all of them preferred starting their eligibility after Pitta and George graduated. Regardless, it’s not generally prudent to have five players in the same eligibility year in the same position group.
The Previous 5-Year Tight End Production
BYU fans are accustomed to over achieving tight ends. The previous 5 seasons (2005-2009) of lightly recruited tight ends produced Jonny Harline and Pitta. Pitta averaged 908 yards and 6.33 touchdowns per season from 2007-09. His predecessor, Harline, averaged 894 yards and 8.5 touchdowns from 2005-06. Even the backup tight ends Daniel Coats and Andrew George were receiving threats and more productive than most teams starting tight ends during those years.
As a side note, if BYU had played its games on a bigger network (i.e. not on “the Mountain”- the Mountain West Conference channel) Harline would likely have been the runaway winner of the 2006 Mackey Award. His 12 TDs and 935 yards were 3 times as many touchdowns and 371 more yards than that year’s award winner. Despite having eye popping stats for a TE, he wasn’t even a finalist for the award. The reason for his omission, in my opinion, was that only Mountain West Conference fans ever saw him play. Those were the dark ages of BYU football where only certain states and cable packages could tune into games.
The Challenges in 2010
The 2010 season result of having nobody groomed to take over for Pitta was that BYU was forced to play a merry-go-round combination of five freshmen tight ends, which proved to be disastrous to the overall production of the tight end position. The tight ends were inconsistent throughout the season and made mistakes in blocking assignments, dropped passes, fumbled, and were generally unproductive as a whole. This level of performance was foreseeable based on the lack of experience of all the tight ends.
Compounding the issue of transitioning from Pitta to tight end “by committee” was BYU’s commitment to play quarterback “by committee” at the start of the 2010 season, which dictated both the quality and quantity of throws that the tight ends received. In games 2, 3, and 4 of the 2010 season, the tight ends had only two catches as a group. This lack of production was a combination of the tight ends being ineffective and the offense not having found an identity at that stage of the season.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2010 season stats for the freshmen tight end committee:
RECEIVING GP No. Yds Avg TD Long Avg/G
Devin Mahina 12 11 118 10.7 0 22 9.8
Marcus Mathews 8 8 136 17 0 32 17
Mike Muehlmann 13 6 96 16 0 26 7.4
Richard Wilson 12 5 61 12.2 0 25 5.1
Austin Holt 12 4 40 10 0 17 3.3
For comparisons sake, all 5 tight ends combined had 451 yards in 2010 and 0 TDs, whereas Pitta and George had 1,237 yards and 13 TDs combined in 2009 and 1,302 yards and 12 TDs in 2008. What is disconcerting about the 2010 group is the lack of production as red (blue) zone targets.
Rather than rehash the ineptitude and mistakes of the 2010 TE group, let’s look ahead to 2011. There is usually a leap in improvement between players’ freshman and sophomore seasons particularly with the lure of playing time that is awarded to the hardest worker.
The outlook for the 2011 season has 5 sophomores competing for playing time. Of the 5 sophomores, only 4 were on last year’s team: Devin Mahina, Marcus Mathews, Richard Wilson, and Austin Holt. Mike Muehlmann, the other freshman tight end, moved to defensive line and was replaced by Kaneakua Friel who returned from an LDS mission prior to spring ball.
Mahina has a 6’6” 236 frame with room to add some weight and is the favorite to become the starter at least this year. Last year, he played in 12 games, starting 5, and had 11 receptions for 118 yards. Mahina has the biggest body of the TEs to both block and throw the ball to. He’ll need to work on his route running and hands to consistently see the field. He runs well for his size, but not as well as Wilson, Mathews, or Friel. However, he appears to have all the tools to be a decent playmaker in BYU’s offense.
Mathews at 6’5” 200 played in 8 games last year with 8 catches for 136 yards. He appears to have some trouble gaining weight, as he didn’t fill out at all on his mission and during the 8 months prior to last season. If he can hold enough weight on his frame, he has the size and receiving ability to be an elite receiving TE. To be a complete TE, however, he will need to work on his blocking and holding onto the football. He had some issues with ball security last year based on the way he held the ball after the catch. If he fails to bulk up, he’ll likely play both TE and be flexed out as a receiver on a limited basis. The official BYU roster has him listed as a WR/TE, which probably means the coaches are concerned about his weight as a TE.
Wilson at 6’2” 233 is the smallest of the TEs, but is probably the most gifted receiver of all the TEs (with Friel being the closest competitor). He was heavily recruited with offers from Miami, LSU, Tennessee, and others out of high school. Despite his immense receiving talent, he hasn’t shown a strong commitment to blocking and must get more physical. Injuries have also slowed his progress down in getting additional playing time. Since he is the smallest target of the tight ends, he will need to create consistent separation to get open to beat out the others. Wilson was in the coach’s “doghouse” for unknown reasons a big portion of last year, but that coach has now moved on. That may equate to more receiving opportunities. He may be used this season as primarily a third down receiving target as he can be quite a mismatch as a receiver.
Holt is 6’4” 245 pounds and the best fundamental blocker of the group and works hard in the weight room. For his blocking ability alone he’ll get playing time. He was highly recruited out of HS with offers from Florida, Oregon and other schools. He played in 12 games a year ago, starting 2, and had 4 catches for 40 yards. The concern with him is speed. Will he be able to get separation on his routes? His talent is very high to become a complete tight end, so he has a good chance to push his way into the two deep for the next three seasons.
Friel is a dark horse candidate at TE, since he wasn’t on the team last year and just got back from his mission in 2011. At 6’5” 235, Friel redshirted 2007 and played in 8 games in 2008 (one start) where he was mentored by George and Pitta before serving a mission. His experience was blocking as he didn’t make a catch in 2008, although he is an excellent athlete with a 35”+ vertical who runs extremely well for his size (4.54 40). He is cross trained at fullback, so he may get some time there too. He is just coming off a mission and an injury in spring ball, so he is little behind the learning curve. At the same time, he may be the best athlete of all the tight ends and already has two years in the program, so he has a chance to be the best combination of blocker-receiver of all the tight ends. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as the starter by the end of the season.
Logistically, there are 5 tight ends all sophomores that are competing for playing time. If the group stays intact, the program will have déjà vu after the 2013 season. Thus, at least one tight end will need to redshirt to be the main man in 2014. Wilson and Friel have already burned their redshirt years, so the redshirt will need to be one of the other three. Mathews appears to need the most time in the weight room, whereas both Mahina and Holt have the excellent frames to be very good all-around tight ends. It would be prudent to redshirt two of three and save two experienced tight ends for 2014.
Although last year’s tight end group played inconsistently and was overall much less productive than in year’s past, there is reason for optimism. BYU invested heavily into last year’s group with the hope that it would pay dividends starting this year through 2013. Freshmen don’t generally get accelerated learning courses of real playing time, so this group should be able to build off last year’s performance and make strides to make tight end the focal point of BYU’s offense once again. The cream should rise to the top. Going into 2012, I expect that BYU fans will once again be talking about the next great BYU tight end with two more years of eligibility.