PROVO — On the same day Bronco Mendenhall was introduced as BYU's head coach in December 2004, the school also introduced Robert Anae as the program's offensive coordinator.
Anae, who had spent the previous five years at Texas Tech as an offensive line coach, was bringing with him a Red Raider-style offense that doesn't utilize the tight end, mitigating the effectiveness of a traditional BYU offensive weapon.
That didn't last long, however.
During the Cougars' 31-10 defeat at San Diego State early in the 2005 season, tight end Jonny Harline showcased his abilities, catching seven passes for 123 yards. Anae, Mendenhall and the rest of the coaching staff concluded that Harline, as well as fellow tight end Daniel Coats, were being underutilized. From that point on, Harline and Coats became heavily involved in the offensive game plan and posted impressive outings the rest of that season and throughout the 2006 campaign.
"It wasn't until the San Diego State game that we realized we could utilize our tight ends more and reshape our offense to include them at a higher level," Mendenhall said.
The tight end position will continue to be a prominent part of the BYU arsenal, said Mendenhall, noting that the Cougars can routinely attract plenty of 6-foot-3, 235-pounders that run well.
"It is a very strong recruiting pull for us," he said. "BYU has had a strong tradition."
That tradition includes former All-America honorees such as Clay Brown, Gordon Hudson, David Mills, Trevor Molini, Chris Smith, Chad Lewis and Itula Mili.
While Harline and Coats are gone, the Cougars are adding to their tight end tradition this season with a triple threat — sophomores Dennis Pitta, Andrew George and Vic So'oto.
Pitta leads the way with 24 receptions for 375 yards and three touchdowns. So'oto has hauled in five passes for 63 yards while George has four grabs for 73 yards.
"We usually have three per game that are contributing," Mendenhall said.
After a solid freshman campaign in 2004, Pitta returned from his LDS mission last December and has been a consistent contributor and playmaker. He knows all about the standard of excellence at the tight end position at BYU.
"There have been some great tight ends that have come through here," Pitta said. "We have big shoes to fill. We just play to the best of our ability and try to fill those shoes."
During the summer, BYU wide receiver Austin Collie predicted Pitta will eventually go down as the greatest tight end in school history. While that's a bold statement, after five games, Collie says Pitta's performance speaks for itself.
"He's only a sophomore, and he's already done a lot more than any sophomore tight end has done here at BYU," Collie said. "He's extremely talented. He's good at running routes and catching the ball. He has great hands. He'll only get better. That's the great thing about it. It doesn't surprise me at all what he's doing. He's a great player and I've always known that, even back in his freshman year."
Quarterback Max Hall likes having Pitta, George and So'oto as targets. "All of our tight ends are such good athletes that we want to take advantage of that and get them the ball. They make plays."
BYU linebacker Bryan Kehl is glad he only has to face the Cougars' talented tight end trio in practice.
"They're as good as any I've played against," he said. "I can't say they're as good as anybody in the country because I have played against all of them, but I'd pick them over anyone in the country. They are good at blocking, leadership and catching the ball. They're amazing."
Mendenhall said the tight end position is the easiest one to recruit at BYU.
"We have no trouble finding enough players to choose from," he said. "The tradition of the tight ends at BYU specifically has been a prominent reason ... When they see those tight ends go on and play (in the NFL), that, then, helps it."
The Cougars have several promising tight ends either serving missions or committed to the program, including Mike Muehlmann, Braden Brown, Kaneakua Friel, Devin Mahina and Austin Holt.
"We'll take as many tight ends as we possibly can because of the unique roles we use them in," Mendenhall said. "We can easily assimilate three into the offense."
RECRUITING: While BYU has locked up most of its 2008 recruiting class, Cougar coaches are taking advantage of the bye week to hit the recruiting trail. This is a period in which the NCAA does not allow any contact between coaches and recruits, but seven Cougar coaches will be out watching high school games this weekend.
"It's a little bit different from some schools because we have the majority of our class already committed (for 2008)," Mendenhall said. "Because we can't contact them, it's a great chance to see them play. Although we can't contact them, many people in the stands will see a BYU coach there and the word will spread that we were there watching so the players know we're supporting them."
Three Cougar coaches, including Mendenhall, will remain in Provo this weekend, when one recruit will be making an official visit to campus.