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Dick Harmon: Tight end remains a big BYU question mark

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 5 2015 12:32 a.m. MDT

Brigham Young University's Mike Muehlmann catches a ball during practice in Provo, Aug. 20, 2010. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Brigham Young University's Mike Muehlmann catches a ball during practice in Provo, Aug. 20, 2010. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

It's a mystery and one of the biggest question marks in BYU football fall camp leading up to Saturday's opener with Washington.

The Cougars face the Huskies without a clear answer as to who is going to play tight end or how productive the new faces at that spot will be.

The QB deal aside, this is like Apple heading into the Christmas buying season uncertain of which new power supply to put in iPad boxes.

Tight-end-dom at BYU is a realm that's produced a line of All-Americans, including this summer's Hall of Fame inductee Gordon Hudson. Remember

Washington's head coach, former Cougar Steve Sarkisian? He benefited from having future NFL tight ends Chad Lewis and Itula Mili as targets in the mid-'90s.

Just how big is this vacancy?

A year ago, BYU All-American Dennis Pitta and overtime Ute-killer Andrew George combined for 829 of BYU's 5,553 total yards and 13 of 34 touchdowns

through the air. But more importantly, they were clutch in BYU's NCAA-leading third-down conversion percentage (55.62).

Pitta was a consensus All-American and George was the All-MWC second-team tight end behind Pitta. How does that happen in a Division I conference?

This year's candidates are redshirt freshmen Mike Muehlmann (6-5, 240) and Richard Wilson (6-2, 228), recently returned missionaries Devin Mahina (6-6, 225), Marcus Mathews (6-4, 200), and prep All-American Austin Holt (6-6, 230), with true freshman Bryan Sampson in the wings alongside LaVell Edwards' grandson Matt Edwards (6-3, 220).

Wilson is the fastest, Muehlmann is the most physical and Holt is the most hyped. All are capable in time.

Mahina might not see the field today due to a leg injury.

As a group, they've progressed, but nobody's Pitta. That's understandable. Although they're talented, they lack Pitta's confidence and what he showed

in strength, experience, work ethic, playmaking, knowledge, leverage, soft hands and leadership.

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said earlier this week offensive coaches are prepared to use a short leash today with this rookie tight end corps. If

those in this group don't mess up, they'll stay on the field.

If they do, there's a backup plan Mendenhall says will be instituted on the fly.

"What Luke Ashworth and O'Neill Chambers bring us, well, let's just say if you go back to our offense three years ago when we had two backs in the

backfield with the quarterback in the shotgun, the slot receiver was Jonny Harline or Pitta," the Cougars' coach said. "If you were to say it could be Ashworth or Chambers, I think so."

Mendenhall said BYU's staff is deciding how much playing time they'll give the tight ends today, and the choice may come to shift to a different personnel group with experienced receivers rather than getting hung up on a tight end position or label.

"The other thing is the size of our receivers. They have nice range, good speed and are tall. They may not have the 20 extra pounds a Pitta has, but they might have more speed and that might be a bigger benefit than the weight differential."

Mendenhall said tight ends usually block linebackers, and receivers are used to taking on safeties.

"That's where position mastery comes in, being comfortable making that contact," he said. "What you do with receivers is move that a level up.

"How much we do cross over, how much we let them play and how much we shift to receivers and their experience depends on how well our tight ends play."

OK, now back to the quarterback derby.

How's this two-headed thing gong to play out?

Kickoff is 5 p.m., and it will all be revealed.

This weekend's local picks:

AIR FORCE 24, NORTHWESTERN STATE 21: A great home game start for the Falcons, who are replacing the entire offensive line.

COLORADO 21, COLORADO STATE 14: The Buffs will not be the ones who end CSU's losing streak dating back to last season.

OREGON 28, NEW MEXICO 10: This venture into Nike territory will be brutal for the Lobos.

SAN DIEGO STATE 28, NICHOLLS STATE 7: Didn't know this visitor had a football squad.

TCU 28, OREGON STATE 9: The first of many big wins for the Horned Frogs.

WISCONSIN 21, UNLV 17: The Big Ten Badgers got a scare from the Rebels a year ago, but I don't think that will happen again, even in Vegas.

WYOMING 28, SOUTHERN UTAH 10: The Cowboys' QB isn't a freshman any more.

OKLAHOMA 34, UTAH STATE 17: Tough assignment in Norman for Gary Andersen's defense.

BYU 24, WASHINGTON 21: Team with fewer turnovers will prevail and in Provo the Cougars should take more than they give.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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