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Brandon Judd, Deseret News
BYU tight end Joe Tukuafu lines up for a play during the Cougars' spring practice at the Indoor Practice Facility on Thursday, March 15, 2018 in Provo.
He’s very motivated and fired up about the season. He just wants to put the pads on and get after it. —BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark, on Joe Tukuafu

PROVO — After a long layoff from football, BYU tight end Joe Tukuafu only wants to look ahead — and make a big impact on the Cougar offense.

His story is fairly well-known.

The 6-foot-4, 275-pound redshirt freshman signed a National Letter of Intent with Utah State out of East High School in 2014. Then he served a mission to Argentina and, upon returning from his mission, decided to enroll at BYU.

Tukuafu had forged a friendship with BYU coach Kalani Sitake — who was hired by the Cougars before the 2016 season — when Sitake was an assistant coach at Utah. In fact, Tukuafu originally committed to the Utes before signing with the Aggies. One of the reasons Tukuafu decided to come to Provo was to play for Sitake.

However, because Utah State refused to grant him a release from his NLI, Tukuafu was forced to sit out and use his redshirt year in 2017.

Before the season, Tukuafu and his family were outspoken about the "unfairness" of the rule.

But now, that’s all in the past. While the Cougars suffered through a 4-9 season, Tukuafu, who hasn’t played in a game since 2014, has made the most of his situation.

“It was frustrating. But I’ve moved on and I’ve moved past it. I’m looking forward to this season,” he said. “I was just trying to do what I could do, fighting from my end, trying to play. But sitting out helped me even more. I developed more, I put on more muscle mass. It did all I could do in the offseason to become better. Now, it’s my time.”

Tight ends coach Steve Clark has seen Tukuafu’s eagerness to play and expects him to contribute this fall.

“He’s very motivated and fired up about the season,” Clark said. “He just wants to put the pads on and get after it.”

BYU has produced numerous All-American tight ends and a handful that have played in the National Football League. But from 2010-2016, the Cougars lacked a consistent, playmaking tight end.

Then Matt Bushman emerged on the scene and showed glimpses of his potential by recording a team-leading 49 receptions for 520 yards and three touchdowns in 2017. He ended up earning Freshman All-American honors.

Tukuafu, who is known for his blocking skills, is expected to complement Bushman on the offense.

“I saw a lot of good things from Matt last year,” Tukuafu said. “He’s improved even more this year. I’m trying to learn from him and see what he’s doing. We’ll try to combine what we both can do and make the offense better.”

Along with Tukuafu and Bushman, the Cougars have four other tight ends on the spring roster — Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Nate Heaps, JJ Nwigwe and Tanner Leishman.

New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes is expected to capitalize on the talent at the tight end position. Tukuafu enjoys Grimes' offensive attack and is looking forward to the role the tight ends will play.

“I like the new offense. It brings a lot on our plate. It gives us more of an opportunity to prove what we can do,” Tukuafu said. “We play a big part in this offense. It helps us be more physical. We’re involved in a lot of the offense and it’s brought us closer as a group. We trust each other to know what each other’s doing.”

At East High, Tukuafu played both tight end and defensive end. As a senior, he accumulated more than 700 receiving yards and eight touchdowns while recording 47 tackles and 6.5 sack while helping lead the Leopards to the 4A state championship game in 2014.

“This is a position that’s grown on me and it’s a position that I’ve grown to love,” Tukuafu said. “It’s physical. I played both ways in high school and I chose the tight end route. It feels more comfortable. It will be fun.”

Now that he’s eligible, Tukuafu is relishing his opportunity to make his mark on the field this season.

“The time's come," he said. "I’ve been dropping some weight, getting more lean. Every day, I look forward to the next practice and see how I can improve."