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Tom Smart, Deseret News
BYU's Devin Mahina , left, and Austin Holt talk during BYU football practice Monday, Aug. 8, 2011, in Provo, Utah.

PROVO — Since Dennis Pitta and Andrew George graduated in 2009, BYU hasn't enjoyed much production from the tight ends.

Pitta and George are the latest in the Cougars' long line of stars at that position. After Pitta and George moved on, BYU appeared to be well-stocked at tight end, but inexperience and injuries have prevented the tight ends from putting up big numbers the past two years.

Last season, three tight ends suffered major injuries — sophomore Devin Mahina (neck), junior Richard Wilson (knee) and junior Austin Holt (knee). All three are returning this fall, along with junior Marcus Mathews and junior Kaneakua Friel. Mathews, who caught 27 passes for 299 yards and one touchdown in 2011, has added more than 20 pounds to his frame during the offseason, bulking up to 228 pounds.

What will 2012 hold for the tight ends?

Quarterback Riley Nelson said people should be more patient with this group of tight ends, which does not feature any seniors.

"I feel there has been undue pressure and scrutiny on our tight ends, due to a lack of perspective on behalf of our fans and perhaps the media, because those guys are young," Nelson said. "Dennis Pitta wasn't always Dennis Pitta. Andrew George wasn't always Andrew George. Jonny Harline wasn't always Jonny Harline … Everyone remembers Harline in 2006, when he was a senior. Everyone remembers Pitta and George in 2009 when they were seniors. Nobody remembers their freshmen and sophomore years. They were learning the game, they were building that foundation through reps."

Interestingly, George is a graduate assistant for the offense this season.

The future is bright at the tight end position, Nelson added.

"Our tight ends are primed. That injury bug, it's tough, because, especially coming back from ACLs, to get that confidence in your knee," he said. "Your strength and motion comes back, but that confidence that your knee is what it was … if we can get over that mental climb, I feel like our tight ends are primed and ready. Marcus Mathews has stayed healthy and put on lots of weight … Those guys who were freshmen and sophomores last year will be sophomores and juniors this year and will be that much better. Next year, when they're juniors and seniors, I think we can expect to be dominant tight ends. College football's a rough game and you've got to let guys grow and develop. I feel like we are well on our way, if not ahead of schedule, as far as the tight ends go."

STACKED AT LINEBACKER: The strength of BYU's defense this season is expected to be at linebacker, where the Cougars return three out of four starters with Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree, and Uona Kaveinga. The fourth spot will be occupied by Spencer Hadley, who has moved from inside to outside to fill the void left by Jordan Pendleton.

Ezekiel Ansah, Alani Fua, Manoa Pikula, Zac Stout, Tyler Beck, Kevan Bills, Teu Kautai, Lene Lesatele and Uani Unga are also expected to contribute at linebacker.

"We're good. We're fast. We're strong. We're smart. We're older. We're wiser," Van Noy said. "Everything you could ask for in a linebacking corps, we have it. It's going to be a positive thing for us. We'll be aggressive. That's what it's all about."

SCHEDULING THE PAC-12: This week, it was announced that BYU and Big Ten power Wisconsin will meet on Nov. 9, 2013, at Camp Randall Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Cougars open the 2012 campaign on Aug. 30 at home against Pac-12 foe Washington State. BYU faces two other Pac-12 opponents this fall — Utah (Sept. 15) and Oregon State (Oct. 13).

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe would like to schedule more games against the Pac-12.

"I think anytime we can play a Pac-12 game, it's good because it's regional, there's not a lot of travel and there's interest," Holmoe said during BYU's media day in June. "We usually go home-and-home. We have great fan support in the Pac-12 cities. It's a no-brainer. I'll play anybody in the Pac-12. I'd play as many as we could."

email: jeffc@desnews.com