Kaneakua Friel hopes to be BYU's solution at tight end
He's casual at times, but on the field, BYU's Friel is taking charge
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — When BYU's Kaneakua Friel was born, his parents bestowed him with the given name of Kaneakua Pomaika'i O'Kalani, which means "Man of God" and "Blessing from Heaven" in Hawaiian.
"It's something I've tried to live up to and remember at all times in my life," Friel said.
So far this season, the junior tight end — whom his teammates and coaches like to call "Kane" (Kah-nay) — has certainly been a blessing to the Cougar offense.
Friel's given name is a mouthful, and he proved to be a handful for Washington State's defense in BYU's dominating 30-6 victory in the season-opener last Thursday. The 6-foot-5, 244-pounder from Kaneohe, Hawaii, turned in a career-best performance, hauling in six receptions for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Considering his quiet, relaxed personality, Friel doesn't seem like a prototypical tight end, a position that requires aggression. At home in Hawaii, he likes to hang loose, spending his free time at the beach and surfing. In Provo, he enjoys taking quiet walks with his wife — they married just three months ago — and their dogs.
"He's a little casual, a little laid-back," said tight ends coach Lance Reynolds. "So that can sometimes work against him in terms of perception. But he's not scared. He's an aggressive guy on the field."
Friel certainly played that way against Washington State.
Late in the second quarter, Friel jumped into the air to snare a pass from quarterback Riley Nelson, then knocked down a defender near the goal line as he barreled into the end zone.
"Somewhere along the line, he's decided to be more aggressive and take the bull by the horns, and it shows," Reynolds said. "He's harnessing all of his experience, knowledge and his skills and he's playing pretty good. He's not harnessing them all, but a big hunk of them. He's a real nice athlete. He's big, strong, fast, a fluid guy."
Friel credits his teammates with helping him maintain an aggressive mindset.
"They like to get fired up and have that attitude that no one is going to stop us," he said. "I try to feed off of them … I'm not such an aggressive guy normally off the field, but when I'm around those guys, they pump me up and make me better."
On Monday, Friel was named the Independent co-offensive player of the week, an honor he shared with Nelson. Against WSU, Friel became the first Cougar tight end since Dennis Pitta in 2009 to surpass the 100-yard mark in receiving yards and score multiple touchdowns in a single game.
Friel will look for similar production when BYU hosts Weber State Saturday (1 p.m. MT, BYUtv).
"It felt great to have an opportunity to play close to my potential," Friel said of his performance against Washington State. "I had been waiting for the time to get the ball in my hands and show what I can do. It was good for me, and I'm waiting for some more. I hope to see more of those games."
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman is also hoping last week's performance is a harbinger of what's to come this season from the tight ends, a position that has been a staple of the Cougar offense for decades, but almost disappeared the past two seasons.
"It changes our offense," Doman said. "It makes us entirely different to have a tight end that's making plays and is a threat for us. It made a major impact on Riley's efficiency as well."
Can Friel continue that kind of production this season?
"We don't know. He's still unproven a little bit," Doman said. "I think it's yet to be seen whether that's sustainable through the year. I'm sure defenses will key on him more and place a little bit more emphasis on stopping our tight end. Hopefully, that will be difficult to do with the other weapons that we have."
Last year, Friel — who served a mission to South Africa after his freshman season in 2008 — gradually ascended the depth chart due to injuries to Devin Mahina, Richard Wilson and Austin Holt. Then, by the end of fall camp, he had earned the starting spot at tight end.
"At the end of last year, he played quite a bit, which I think is helping him now," Reynolds said. "He got a feel for it. He had a nice fall camp and has been able to stay healthy. He's really playing well. I hope that keeps going down that same avenue."
Friel knows all about the stellar tight end tradition at BYU, and he wants to be a part of that.
"We have loads of talent at the tight end position. Between all of us, we'll have great games where one will stick out over the others. I know we have a lot of talent between the four of us. We're ready to see some big plays between us," Friel said. "Coach Reynolds has been telling us that we need to be dominant. We need to execute and dominate the other team. The tight end group as a whole have been taking it pretty seriously in practice to execute to the best of our ability. So we're trying to come back and trying be like it was here, with great tight ends like Itula Mili or even Chad Lewis. We're not comparing ourselves to them, but that's something we want to be like. We want to be great."
If Friel can continue to play like he did in the opener, it appears he could be on his way.
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