PROVO — The tight end battle has been recognized as the No. 1 priority of BYU's fall camp, and as the team prepares for its second scrimmage of the preseason, that battle is beginning to wind down.
Who is the leader at this juncture?
"Austin Holt has (emerged)," tight ends coach Lance Reynolds said without hesitation. "Now I need another guy. I need two guys."
According to Reynolds, Holt has shown "drastic improvement" in all areas of his game. Inspired by a new offensive system, Holt has taken the lead in what was viewed as a very close competition at the beginning of fall practice.
Holt's biggest means of separation is his ability to block. With new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman choosing to go with the tighter line splits inherit within a pro-style offense, the former Bingham High standout tight end may have been the biggest beneficiary.
While at Bingham, Holt was part of the Miners' run-heavy system. While it didn't allow much opportunity to catch passes, it did prepare him for what BYU is doing offensively into the 2011 season.
"The cards definitely turned to my favor with the offense," he said. "All I did at Bingham was put my hand on the ground and go. It's more of how a traditional tight end plays, and I'm used to it. I'm used to being mostly used for blocking, and it's my strength."
His ability to block off the line has been well-noted by his teammates along the offensive front.
"I love it when he's right by because I know I can trust him and know that he'll get his job done," said offensive lineman Braden Brown, who is a converted tight end. "People say I was a good blocker when I was at tight end, but he's a lot better than I was. We love having him there because he makes our job much easier. Blocking is definitely one of his biggest strengths."
Since Reynolds moved to tight end coach and Doman took over as the offensive coordinator, they've encouraged Holt to play to his strengths. While most players like to believe they're a player that can stretch the field and score at any time, he's well aware that he's not that type.
"I'm not 'Speedy Gonzales' out there, so I'm not the guy that can catch passes 40 yards down the field," he said. "I know what I can do well, and that is to play physical and be a consistent threat to catch passes 10 or 15 yards down the field. It's about knowing your strengths and with how we're playing now. It definitely helps me."
Being more aware of those strengths and being more comfortable within the current offensive system has allowed Holt to play with a lot more confidence.
"He's decided somewhere, whether it be in the spring or during the summer, to take a hold of this thing and to completely master everything we're asking him to do," said Reynolds. "With that, he's gotten a bit more grit in his teeth. He's more poised, and he's always been a physical player, but this fall, he's shown to have gotten a lot more physical with his play.
"He's executing everything very well, and he's just a different dude than he was six months ago. He has a sort of strut to him now that I'm looking for in the other guys.
MATHEWS IS PLAYING WELL: Ultimately, Reynolds plans to use two primary tight ends. Although Marcus Mathews is a sort of hybrid WR/TE, he was singled out for his play so far this fall.
"He's a different type of tight end than Austin (Holt), quite a bit different in what he can do for us," he said. "So he's someone who has emerged and is someone that I feel that I can depend on, so I'd say the two guys I have right now that I know I can depend on are Austin Holt and Marcus Mathews at this point."
The wide splits aren't completely extinct within the Cougar offensive system. When they present those wide-splits, fans can expect Mathews to be someone used frequently in that formation.
"I feel that I've had a good fall camp," said Mathews. "My strength is my route-running and I've been working on catching the ball well. I just want to play and to help the team. I wasn't able to do that as much as I wanted last year. None of the tight ends were, I think, so we're all pushing each other and trying to help out more this year."
WILSON, MAHINA IMPROVING: Although Holt and Mathews have emerged so far, the tight end battle isn't over. Players such as Richard Wilson and Devin Mahina are nipping at the heels of the two frontrunners and making the competition as competitive as possible.
Wilson, in particular, has started to make good catches during team drills with the first-team offense.
"I think that I've been able to make the most of my opportunities when I've had the chance," he said. "I just need to continue doing that. I need to respond with every situation they put me in, and if I do, I'll play and I'll help this team."
While Holt has benefited greatly with the change of the offense, pulling ahead in the battle through practice sessions, it's been somewhat the opposite for Wilson. Without spring practices, he's had to play a lot of catch-up.
"I wasn't able to be out there with this new offense, and that's been a challenge for sure," he said. "I feel that I've been able to make up a lot of ground though and I just need to keep with it. Last year you saw five or six guys play throughout the game, but it won't be like that this year. This year, it will be just two or three guys that will probably play, so I definitely want to be one of those guys."
Reynolds feels that both Wilson and Mahina add a new dimension to the position that will benefit them both.
"Richard is physical, but he can run really well," Reynolds said. "He can do things that Austin and some of the other guys can't, so that helps him. Devin (Mahina) is different than Austin with what he can do, but that's OK. They each need to just focus on their strengths. They're both committed and they're trying, but they don't have that same strut when they go about what they do like Austin does and that's what I want to see."
Overall, Reynolds has been pleased with how the battle has shaped up so far.
"Austin has a prominence in the locker room now, and you want a guy that takes that lead and shows everyone else how it's done," he said. "I think they're following that lead as best they can and we're going to be much improved at the position because of it. I like how each guy is competing and now it's my job, it's all of our jobs to make sure that continues throughout the year."