PROVO — Many knew it before his freshman season even began: Matt Bushman would quickly become a member of BYU’s exclusive Tight End Club — a group of All-Americans who put their mark on college football, if not careers in the NFL.
That NFL deal hasn’t happened yet, but if Bushman’s freshman season is any indication of his trajectory, his ceiling is high. He’s now officially inducted into the mythical tight end club. He joins the likes of Dennis Pitta, Chad Lewis, Itula Mili, David Mills, Tod Thompson, Chris Smith, Gordon Hudson, Jonny Harline, Doug Jolley, Daniel Coats, Andrew George, Clay Brown and many others.
“He’s carrying the mantle and doing a great job at it,” said Lewis of Bushman’s most recent honor this week, selection as a 2017 Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America team.
Lewis owns a Super Bowl ring and was selected three times to play in the Pro Bowl during a career with the Eagles and Cardinals. He earned honorable mention All-America honors at BYU his junior year.
Bushman led all FBS freshmen tight ends with 49 receptions for 520 yards in 2017. He finished No. 5 among all tight ends in receptions and No. 6 in receiving yards. Bushman scored three touchdowns.
This is the best tight end performance at BYU since Pitta had 62 catches, 829 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009.
Lewis, who has watched Bushman since before he served an LDS Church mission and grayshirted at BYU, says he saw this kind of recognition coming.
“He’s an extremely talented guy who backs up that talent with a tremendous amount of hard work. Even though he has a quiet temperament, his work ethic, desire and competitiveness is anything but quiet,” said Lewis.
“He is a humble giant moving through life and football with just this forest fire of a desire inside his heart, and that’s pretty cool.”
Lewis remembers four years ago, then offensive coordinator Robert Anae talked highly of Bushman.
“He had all the dimensions and met all the criteria to become an incredible BYU tight end," Lewis said.
“He went on his mission, came home and the second he came home I was watching him run around, even though he had some surgery right after he returned. I wondered how he would recover and rehab from that. He got into lifting weights and I was able to talk to him. He was impressive again with his dimensions and what looked like to me, very fluid motion and running style.”
To others, the first dose of Bushman came last spring during spring practices and at the Blue-White game. Bushman ripped off a couple of huge pass plays, including a TD gallop that ended up the play of the day.
The buzz was immediate.
“Through spring practice last year it was obvious he had absolutely everything a great BYU tight end would need to have,” said Lewis. “At his base he is strong, he is fast and he has Parade All-American baseball hand-eye coordination, which is obvious to everyone who watched him catch balls in traffic. It is a gift. Cody Hoffman had that gift to be able to catch balls over anyone in traffic, and Matt has that same gift.”
Lewis remembers Bushman grew up in New Orleans competing against some of the best athletes in the country. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, his father was teaching at Tulane University. “The family was displaced and they moved to Tucson and are still there. In baseball and football, he competed against the best athletes in the country,” said Lewis.
“This year in football, he knows all the tight ends all around the country. He’s played with or against them in baseball, basketball or baseball tournaments growing up. He’s aware of them, he knows them. I think that gives him a great advantage. Knowing your competition is almost half the battle because you realize they are people just like you. Once you realize that and take the mask off a superhero, then you can become a superhero.”
That Bushman delivered in a season in which BYU’s offense struggled with historically low numbers, is impressive to Lewis, who now works as a fundraiser in BYU’s athletic department.
The season began without the team’s best receiver and tight end, Moroni Laulu-Pututau, who injured his foot just over a week before the first game. Then BYU learned freshman Joe Tukuafu would not be eligible to play after transferring from Utah State after his mission. Before that, BYU’s best running back Ula Tolutau was unavailable due to a foot injury in August.
Plenty of other issues followed.
This began a spin and pivot for offensive coordinator Ty Detmer and starting quarterback Tanner Mangum. Months later, Mangum ruptured his Achilles and Detmer lost his job.
“It says a lot about Matt but it also speaks to the offense,” said Lewis of the challenges in 2017.
“My best year catch-wise was when I had 69 during a year our offense was struggling. But in the West Coast offense, the tight end position is where you can still rise up, star and even be an anchor. It speaks to both him and that he was able to show up, answer the bell and compete.
“But it also speaks well of the offense, that he’s in an offense perfectly situated for him. Even in the midst of serious trial he really did well, kept his head up, played hard and was productive. All of those are characteristics and traits of a player that you want to have to help move your program forward.”
The next time Bushman plays in 2018 will be in Pac-12 territory in the season opener against Arizona in his hometown of Tucson.
“The fact he is recognized as a freshman All-American is fitting and it is also motivating for him,” said Lewis.
“He knows he is on the right path and the last thing he wants to do is slow down and party. He wants to dig in and work harder. And as people get to know him, they’ll appreciate that in him; that he is not satisfied.”
Welcome to the club.