PROVO As recently as halftime of BYU's game against Air Force Saturday, tight end Dennis Pitta was a relatively obscure name on the Cougar roster.
That all changed during the second half, when the unsung freshman became a household name among BYU fans. And he probably won't be soon forgotten by the Falcon faithful, much to their dismay.
Pitta, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder from Moorpark, Calif., caught an 11-yard screen pass for a touchdown the first of his career midway through the third quarter, giving the Cougars a 17-10 lead they would not relinquish. It was the first touchdown caught by a BYU tight end this season.
Two minutes later, Pitta blocked a punt that resulted in another TD the first time the Cougars had scored off of a blocked punt since 1992.
If that weren't enough, he registered the game's final score with three minutes remaining in the contest. His one-yard touchdown catch slammed the door on the Falcons and sealed a 41-24 win.
"I'm just happy to contribute to the team in that way," Pitta said.
Not bad for a guy who came to Provo as a walk-on wide receiver.
Though Pitta enjoyed a solid career at Moorpark High School, where he caught 64 passes for 1,150 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior, no Division I schools offered him a scholarship. Having grown up as a Cougar fan, he chose to attend BYU.
After joining the team last spring as a walk-on, he was switched to tight end and impressed coaches enough to earn a scholarship.
"It was difficult to make the adjustment (to tight end)," said Pitta, who is about 40 pounds lighter than fellow BYU tight end Daniel Coats. "It's a lot more physical playing tight end, having to be a part of the offensive line and having to block. It's a part of the game I had to develop, and I'm still working hard to try to get better in that area."
"He was a receiver in high school. That's a whole different animal than being a tight end in college," said tight ends coach Mike Empey. "We liked him. But we didn't really consider him as a tight end until spring ball started. He had put on a little bit of weight and we started to work with him. Everything he had ever done had been as a wide receiver. He made huge strides because of his athletic ability. He's got like a 36-, 38-inch vertical (leap). He's such a good athlete, he caught on real quickly. He's worked hard at it."
Pitta was planning to leave for an LDS mission in the summer and received his call to the Dominican Republic. "Then the coaches and myself decided it would be a better opportunity for me if I played this season because, timing-wise, I would be able to get back in shape and get ready for spring ball after my mission," Pitta said. "The coaches felt like I would be able to contribute this year."
They were right. Pitta entered fall camp as the No. 3 tight end on the depth chart, behind Coats and Phil Niu, who suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks before the season opened.
"I'm glad I've gotten an opportunity to make an impact," said Pitta, who will leave for his mission to the Dominican Republic in January.
Cougar coaches are counting on Pitta contributing even more between now and then. The contributions come in many ways, not just catching touchdown passes."I think our tight ends have contributed every week. You don't always have to contribute with the ball in your hands," Empey said. "Dennis and Daniel have done a great job protecting the running back and helping us establish our running game this year. It was nice to get a few balls thrown to (Pitta) but we're of the feeling that whatever we need to do to win is what we need to do for our team."
BYE WEEK PLANS: The Cougars will practice today before taking the rest of the week off. Coach Gary Crowton will spend part of that time recruiting in Las Vegas.Empey said it's a good time for a bye, although the Cougars have won two games in a row. "Sometimes it's hard because you feel like you're going to lose momentum," he said. "But we've had a lot of guys play due to injuries. To gear up for these last three games, it's good to have an opportunity to heal some guys and let them get their energy back. It's our first break since two-a-days. We need to get healthy."