OREM — When BYUtv broadcast the Cougars' spring football scrimmage for the first time in late March, the network gained a lot of fans of the idea.
Count former BYU tight end Dennis Pitta among them.
Pitta, now an eighth-year NFL veteran with the Baltimore Ravens, had the chance to see the next potential tight end star at his alma mater, freshman Matt Bushman, on TV while watching from Arizona, his offseason home.
Bushman had six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the scrimmage, including a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown grab off a short pass from freshman quarterback Kody Wilstead.
"Matt Bushman stood out as someone who's a guy that could be a difference-maker for this team," Pitta said prior to the 23rd annual banquet for the Utah Chapter of the National Football Foundation at UVU's UCCU Center on April 12. "He was fun to watch. He was making plays and runs really well. (He’s a) big kid with size and athleticism. Hopefully he can be the guy that that position as a position of prominence in that offense."
Bushman, who recently returned from an LDS Church mission in Chile, called Pitta one of his role models following his spring scrimmage performance. Between him and another young tight end, Utah State transfer Joe Tukuafu, the future of the Cougar tight end group appears to have a bright future. Tukuafu had a 47-yard catch in the scrimmage.
That makes Pitta, who is the Cougars' all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards among tight ends, salivate at the possibilities of restoring that position to prominence in the BYU offense for the first time since he left BYU in 2009.
"I think it’s important. We haven’t had a guy like that over the last few years, which has always been a big part of that offense and played such a vital role," he said.
Whether it's looking at his own career or checking in with his alma mater, Pitta has a positive outlook.
Pitta's own tight-end journey continues, as the Ravens started organized team activities last week. Not long ago, his career appeared in doubt, even to himself, after Pitta suffered hip injuries in back-to-back years and spent nearly two straight seasons on the sidelines, including missing all of the 2015 season.
"There was a point during my injuries where I didn’t think I’d be able to play football again. I had people tell me I wouldn’t be able to, doctors and people who knew a whole lot more than me," Pitta said.
But with faith, and friends, as well as preparing himself for whatever happened, he found himself back on the field last season, recording career-bests in receptions (86) and receiving yards (729) while adding two touchdown receptions.
"Fortunately I just kind of trusted the process and wanted to see where I was at when all was said and done. I felt good enough to play again. I got through last year healthy and unscathed all season," Pitta said. "Here I am, able to go through an offseason healthy and prepare myself for next year."
Friends, including his teammates, have played a key role in not only his resurgence on the field — Pitta earned AFC North Comeback Player of the Year honors last year — and in helping him find long-standing success in the pros. One of those close friends is another LDS athlete, Eric Weddle, who joined the Ravens in 2016 after nine seasons in San Diego.
"(He) brought a lot of instant leadership, especially to the defensive side of the ball. We’re lucky to have him in Baltimore," Pitta said of Weddle, the former University of Utah All-American.
Pitta is known for his strong friendships with teammates. Quarterback Joe Flacco is among his closest friends, along with Weddle.
"Our families are great friends and we hang out all the time. We put our past allegiances aside and are able to hang out and get along quite well," Pitta said of Weddle. "He’s been a tremendous addition out there and I look forward to playing with him for a few more years."
Pitta is also surrounded by several other former Cougars on the Baltimore roster. Also there is cornerback Robertson Daniel (he signed a reserve/futures contract in January after spending time on the practice squad in 2016), offensive tackle De'Ondre Wesley (who spent last year on injured reserve and is currently an exclusive rights free agent) and defensive end Bronson Kaufusi (who also spent last season, his rookie year, on injured reserve with a broken ankle).
"Bronson’s a great kid, and I really enjoyed getting to know him, becoming friends with him," Pitta said.
The expectations are high for Kaufusi, who was a third-round draft pick by the Ravens last year.
“Bronson has been in here with the rehabbing and the training right on through, and I can tell you, he looks good,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told baltimoreravens.com during a pre-draft press conference nearly two weeks ago. “He looks big, really working on his lower half because he had the broken leg, and the trainers are doing a great job with him there. But when you see him, physically, you’re going to like the way he looks.”
Hard work, and preparing for what lies ahead, have been crucial to bouncing back for Pitta, as well as his younger counterpart Kaufusi. It that sense, Pitta stands as an example to younger athletes.
"We hear all the time, if you want to be successful in any field, whether it's football or anything else, it takes hard work," Pitta told the audience at the NFF banquet honoring 14 high school football players from the state. "Aside from that, it takes preparation, hard work to prepare in whatever you're doing. That was something, fortunately for me, I did very well."
The process of returning from the hip injuries has been a challenge, but one Pitta has learned from.
"It instilled in me, again, what hard work and dedication and diligence to your craft, to whatever it is you put your mind to, what that will do for you," he said.
Pitta is now a father of three, including 1-year-old twins. That makes his offseason busy and finding time to revisit BYU difficult. "Time is of the essence for me right now," he said.
Still, that doesn't mean he doesn't keep an eye on his alma mater and the changes going on under second-year coach Kalani Sitake.
"What they were able to do last year, implementing new systems and with a roster of guys they didn’t necessarily recruit, having the success that they had, it’s exciting for what the future holds," he said.