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BYU football: Cougar tight ends hope to finally end bad soap opera

Published: Thursday, March 21 2013 9:00 p.m. MDT

Brigham Young Cougars tight end Devin Mahina (84) catches a long pass that lead to a field goal during the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU is searching for a tight end to step up and take hold of the starting spot for the 2013 season. Those vying for the coveted position include a host of highly recruited prospects who hope to match the production of past tight ends like Dennis Pitta, Johnny Harline and many, many others.

Yes, if you’re a BYU fan, you’ve likely heard this narrative before.

Since 2010 the plot hasn’t been altered all that much at the tight end position. The characters are largely the same in what has become akin to a bad soap opera that coaches, players and fans hope reaches a climactic conclusion at long last.

The cast of candidates includes seniors Kaneakua Friel, Richard Wilson and junior Devin Mahina. Other past candidates like Holt and Marcus Mathews are currently auditioning for different roles.

Although Friel secured the starting spot last season and responded with 30 receptions and five touchdowns, the position remains open.

“There’s not a clear-cut guy that we’re prepared to say is the starter,” said offensive coordinator Robert Anae. “As a group I think they’re getting the hang of it, but we’d love (their execution) to be crisper; we’d love it to be faster; and we’d love it to be harder.”

The failure of BYU establishing a top-notch tight end over the past three seasons hasn’t necessarily been due to lack of talent or mass underachievement — far from it. The current group has suffered through a rash of individual injuries, spotty quarterback play and a lack of offensive identity necessary to firmly establish themselves as the next great Cougar tight ends.

This year all of them are as healthy as ever and are matched with Anae, who featured the tight end position in his last stint as offensive coordinator.

“I feel like it could be anyone’s position,” Friel says. “Right now I’m taking reps with the fullbacks a bit and with whatever role they have me play I’m happy with. But I’d obviously love to be the guy at (tight end.) I’ll do whatever they need me to, but I obviously want the ball. I think the competition is good and everyone is striving to be that guy right now. I think it’s going to help all of us be better.”

Anae has changed things at the position with regard to alignment and physical makeup. According to Friel the charge is for all of them to get “smaller” in order to be quicker and faster in their pass patterns and ability to get up the field.

While Anae obviously wants great production from the tight end position, it’s not necessarily imperative for the overall success of his offense. How featured the position will be in his offense will entirely be determined by how any of the vying candidates show in preseason practices and workouts.

“A lot of that has to do with the deserve factor,” Anae said. “Tight ends get involved as they are deserving and that comes with earning the quarterback’s trust. (They) have to have good chemistry with the quarterback and they have to get open — especially if the quarterback makes (them) his first read.”

Meanwhile, Mathews and Holt are both practicing at new positions after spending almost all of their time at tight end since 2010.

For Mathews it’s back to outside receiver where he started his career at BYU before moving inside.

“I prefer playing inside, but I’ll play wherever they want me to,” Mathews said. “With Anae playing the tight end more off the line and in space I think that will help me and what I’m able to do, so I’ll be more than willing to move back to tight end if that’s what they want. If they want to keep me outside then I’ll do that as well. Whatever I can help the team most is what I’ll do.”

Holt’s position switch has been much more dramatic. The former tight end has switched sides over to the defense and is competing for a spot at defensive end.

“It’s been a hard change, but it’s been a good change,” Holt said. “I have an awesome relationship with coach (Bronco) Mendenhall and we just decided that he needed some help on the defensive line. I played (defense) a bit in high school and so far it’s been a good change. It’s been hard doing pretty much exactly the opposite of what I’ve done the first three years in the program, but I’m happy with where I’m at.”

Email: bgurney@desnews.com

Twitter: @BrandonCGurney

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