PROVO — For decades, the tight end position has been a staple and prolific weapon for the BYU offense while producing stars like Clay Brown, Gordon Hudson, Chad Lewis, Jonny Harline and Dennis Pitta.
"It's huge," assistant head coach Lance Reynolds said when asked about the importance of tight ends in his team's offensive attack. "It's the way we use them, and we've had some good players there. Both the scheme and kind of player we've had there has led to a lot of success."
Last season, however, the tight end element was considerably less productive than previous years.
After losing Pitta and Andrew George to graduation and the National Football League, BYU was left with a group of young and inexperienced tight ends trying to replace them.
A quintet of freshmen — Devin Mahina, Marcus Mathews, Mike Muehlmann, Richard Wilson and Austin Holt — combined for 34 catches for 451 yards and a glaring zero touchdowns in 2010.
In 2009, Pitta hauled in 62 passes for 829 yards and eight TDs, while George had 30 receptions for 408 yards and five touchdowns.
So who did BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall assign to revitalize the tight ends after offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Robert Anae left Provo to take a job at Arizona in January?
It was Reynolds, who is entering his 29th season with the Cougars.
"I hope (last year's struggle) was just a matter of inexperience," said Reynolds, BYU's new tight ends coach. "I hope we can be more productive now. I way hope we can do that."
While this isn't the first time he's coached that position, it's been a while. Since 2004, Reynolds has coached the running backs. Prior to that, from 2001-2003, he coached the offensive line after spending the 2000 season as the offensive coordinator. He served as running backs coach from 1985-99.
Reynolds likes the challenge of overseeing the tight ends.
"It's new right now. I used to do it a lot, so it's really not that new," he said. "But it's certainly a change. It's been nice. It's been fun and interesting and challenging and exciting. I've enjoyed it."
BYU quarterback Jake Heaps has noticed improved play from the tight ends since the end of last season.
"Coach Reynolds is doing an absolutely incredible job with these guys," he said. "He has lit a fire underneath them and these guys have a lot to prove. They had a year last year, where none of them caught a touchdown; none of them really had any spectacular performances — coming from a school that has great tight ends. So these guys want to prove that this is a group that should be known for great tight ends."
Certainly, Reynolds has young, eager players at his disposal.
"We have good guys, pretty good talent," he said. "It hasn't been frustrating because we have talent. It's just a matter of applying that talent."
During the recently completed spring practices, Mahina, Mathews and Holt saw most of the action and showed glimpses of their potential.
Senior Matthew Edwards, the grandson of legendary coach LaVell Edwards, is also part of the group. Redshirt freshman Bryan Sampson, who caught the game-winning two-point conversion in last Saturday's Blue-White scrimmage, is leaving for an LDS mission this summer. Muehlmann was switched from tight end to the defensive line during the winter.
Returned missionary Kaneakua Friel and Richard Wilson missed drills due to injuries but they are expected to be part of the mix when fall camp opens in August.
"We'll figure out where Friel and Wilson are at once they're with us in the fall," Reynolds said.
Mathews and Holt turned in solid performances during the spring, according to Mendenhall.
"Austin Holt has done a nice job of establishing more of a physical role and Marcus Mathews is more of a down-the-field role," Mendenhall said. "They've both emerged in different areas."17 comments on this story
While there appears to be a plentitude of players at tight end, Reynolds doesn't necessarily see it that way.
"It takes three of them just to play," he said. "Sometimes we play three tight ends in goal-line situations and we play a lot with double tight (two tight ends). We need a handful to run our formations."
And the Cougars need their tight ends to produce — in the form of catches, yards and touchdowns — like their predecessors have for decades.