As freshmen, we were shaky. Last year it got better and this year it will get even better. Confidence comes with experience and practice. We've put in a lot of those practices. —Marcus Mathews
PROVO — In recent years, BYU has stockpiled a talented group of tight ends.
But, so far, the Cougars don't have much to show for it in terms of production. Will this be the season that the tight ends finally restore a core element of the BYU offense?
Fall camp has concluded, the season is less than 10 days away — BYU hosts Washington State on Aug. 30 — and the jury is still out on the tight ends.
While Marcus Mathews and Kaneakua Friel have shown flashes of their potential, Austin Holt (a former high school All-American) and Richard Wilson (who was rated the No. 4 tight end prospect in the nation in 2008) are coming back from offseason knee surgery; Devin Mahina, who is coming off neck surgery last year, is now sidelined with a broken hand suffered in fall camp; and Stehly Reden (a converted defensive lineman) is still learning the position.
Tight end, once again, is one of the Cougars' biggest questions marks heading into the upcoming season. BYU is hoping at least one tight end steps up and becomes a consistent weapon.
"We need to get our tight-end position to perform like it needs to," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "So we are working on it. We've got a few injuries that are kind of slowing us down."
Mathews, who led the tight ends with 27 catches for 299 yards in 2011, knows about the long history of stellar tight end play at BYU. This year's collection of tight ends have been coming on gradually, and they want to make an impact.
"I see a lot of talent in this group. Knowing our tradition and how good we are right now, nothing's going to change that perspective," Mathews said. "When we were all freshmen and sophomores (in 2010), it was a big learning curve for us. We jumped right into playing as freshmen, right after Dennis (Pitta) left. We had no senior leaders. That affects the way you play. Instead of someone taking us under their wing, we were thrown right into the fire. Now, things are starting to turn around and look how they should."
Tight ends coach Lance Reynolds likes that he has plenty of veterans at his disposal.
"We've got a lot of experience and we're quite a large jump ahead of where we started out last year," he said. "Obviously, we had some injury difficulties through last year that made us start several different people. Now we have a lot of starts in the group, which helps us. Some of the guys are still coming off injuries, so we have to work with that and make sure they can get up to where they were before they were hurt and regain their confidence. They've all played, so there's a little more strut than what we've had."
In 2010, BYU's tight ends, most of who were freshmen, failed to catch a single touchdown pass.
That streak ended in dramatic fashion last year, when Mathews caught a tipped pass in the end zone with 11 seconds remaining in the comeback victory over Utah State.
"That was really cool," Mathews recalled. "It was more cool for me to know I was a part of helping turn our season around. That was a big game for us. It was good to get that monkey off our backs — the tight ends hadn't scored in over a year. It was nice to end that and just play and not think about that and what everyone was saying."
Mathews, who has bulked up during the offseason in order to become more of a traditional tight end, said the tight ends' confidence, as a group, is growing.
"As freshmen, we were shaky. Last year it got better and this year it will get even better," he said. "Confidence comes with experience and practice. We've put in a lot of those practices."
Now the Cougars are hoping to see that confidence, and production, on the field.