PROVO — One of the biggest questions this season surrounding BYU football involves the tight end position.
As in, where in the world is Matt Bushman?
A year ago, Bushman was named a freshman All-American after catching a team-high 49 passes for 520 yards and three touchdowns. Expectations for him entering his sophomore campaign were high.
Through five games, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Tucson, Arizona, native has caught a modest six passes for 109 yards and one touchdown as the Cougars get set to host Utah State Friday (7 p.m., MDT, ESPN2).
Not that he hasn’t made some big plays — his lone TD was a crucial one in the season-opening victory at Arizona. Last week at Washington, he hauled in BYU's longest pass of the season, a 39-yarder.
Considering this is an offense lacking consistent playmakers, why hasn’t Bushman been targeted more by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes?
“First of all, Matt was the only one we had last year at tight end. Now we’re rotating three, sometimes four,” explained tight ends coach Steve Clark. “He hasn’t had the same opportunities and he’s been targeted less. It’s a different offense. It’s a different scheme. It doesn’t lend itself to catching the ball a lot for the tight ends, as much as it did last year. But we can play a good game and not catch a ball because of what we’re relied on in the run game."
How has Bushman dealt with fewer chances to catch passes?
"It’s been difficult for him. He’d like to catch the ball more," Clark said. "But he’s never voiced it. He’s never said, ‘Throw me the ball more.’ He’s willing to do what he’s asked to do, whether that’s block or catch the ball, whatever needs to be done.”
For the first time in his career, Bushman is being asked to be a physical run-blocker and he's doing many things on the field that go unnoticed by many observers.
Bushman is in a much different situation than he was last season and he's gaining on-the-job experience.
“Last year I just had a chance to go out and run routes and catch the ball for our team. This year, the tight end is not just a receiver,” he said. “They’ve challenged all of us to be run-blockers and receivers. The biggest improvement for me is just knowing that I need to have a role in the blocking game and I can’t just shield a guy off or get in front of him. But I need to be physical and get a push on these defensive linemen and linebackers.
"It’s still definitely not perfect. The coaches have really pushed me and it’s showing a little bit better and better week after week. But there’s still a lot of improvement (in blocking) with my flexibility, with my steps, being low.”
Now that tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau has been lost for the season with a knee injury, Bushman might be called upon more as a pass catcher.
How has Bushman fared in terms of what Grimes expects of the tight end position?
“He’s greatly improved as a blocker. Obviously, he’s always been a really good receiver. He’s a guy that you can count on. I have the utmost confidence in him when we throw the football that he’s going to make a play on the ball,” Grimes said. “What he’s done is really worked to improve himself as a blocker.
"He was going to play more reps in this last game whether Moroni had gotten hurt or not. We had gone from playing three tight ends primarily to playing two the rest of the game. I’m really pleased with his progress. He’s not there yet but he’s made a lot of progress as a blocker.”
Clark’s assessment of Bushman?
“He’s done really well. He’s progressed,” he said. “Is he where he needs to be? Is he where he can be? He’s not there yet. But he’s progressed.”
Bushman is trying to improve and prove himself every day.
“It’s a different scheme that we’re doing," he said. "There are certain plays that we’re running, certain formations that we’re running with different tight ends and things like that. It’s been a competition. Some of those things I didn’t get done in practice or in a game so I would be held back reps and the other tight ends were able to get that job done.
"I’ve been working and doing whatever’s necessary. We’ve been run-blocking a lot and trying to get the run game going. When the passing game’s there, we’re still running those routes. It’s either our fault not getting open or we’re not getting there fast enough. We’ve been working on getting that separation when there’s man-to-man coverage. We’re looking forward to getting better at that as the season goes on.”
Bushman described the process of plying his craft as a run-blocker.
“It’s something different that I hadn’t really done before. It’s been a definite challenge for me, just being something new," Bushman said. "Having coaches push me so much, it was hard at times and it is still hard at times because it’s an ongoing thing. But it’s been cool to see the improvement, just knowing that it’s going to help me in the long run and just to become a better tight end as a whole.
"You just can’t run routes as a tight end or else you become a receiver. It’s been tough but I’m really grateful for the patience that the coaches have had but also the way they’ve pushed me in a way of expectations has helped me grow, even though it’s been a struggle at times.”
Along with Bushman, the tight end position also features freshman Dallin Holker, freshman Hank Tuipulotu, senior JJ Nwigwe and junior Addison Pulsipher. Both Nwigwe and Pulsipher are converted offensive linemen.20 comments on this story
“We all have different strengths,” Bushman said of the tight end group. “All the coaches have been challenging us to work on those weaknesses so we can be reliable every play of the game. We’ve all learned from each other. The tight end room is a special place. There’s a good bond where we compete and we’re fighting for those reps. But we love each other and we’re always looking to help each other get better.”
• • •
Utah State (3-1) at BYU (3-2)
- Friday, 7 p.m. MDT LaVell Edwards Stadium
- TV: ESPN2
- Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM