PROVO — Had you asked anyone who follows the program which BYU offensive player would be the team's focal point prior to the 2018 season, tight end Matt Bushman likely would have been the overwhelming response.
And why wouldn't it be?
As a freshman in 2017, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Tucson native led the team in receptions (49) for 520 yards and three touchdowns, standing out and drawing a lot of defensive attention late in the year. Those stats were bound to improve his second year, in most people's mind, although several factors have caused Bushman's numbers to take a dip, along with his reps.
That's not to say Bushman hasn't contributed well. He has, for the most part, and has seen an uptick in repetitions and production in recent weeks, appearing to hold a semblance of the role most assumed he'd have prior to the start of the season.
"With this offense I think I've done my role. I've done my job," Bushman said. "Coaches have expected me to get better in certain facets like blocking and things like that. But I think I've improved as the season has gone on. I think I'm getting better. I'm happy with my role, but there's always room for improvement."
The need to improve has perhaps become accelerated with the attrition that's come to the tight end position.
Junior tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau provided the most notable setback for the group, sustaining a season-ending ACL injury early in the Cougars' 35-7 loss to Washington. At the time, the Mountain Crest product was leading the team in receptions, forcing some changes to the tight end position and just about everyone's role, along with the loss of JJ Nwigwe and injuries to freshman Hank Tuipulotu.
"It's been a little weird," Bushman said of how the tight end position has been made to adjust throughout the 2018 season. "My freshman year, the same thing kind of happened. You always have depth, and then the tight end position is just so physical … there's always something new. I think tight ends are never playing at 100 percent."
Bushman has had his share of bumps and bruises this year, although nothing that can compare with what Laulu-Pututau has been through. But despite whatever setbacks have come, last year's leading receiver has at times looked to be the same guy with the type of unique athleticism that can give opposing defensive coordinators headaches.
Through eight games played, he's starting to emerge again as BYU's primary downfield option in what has been an offense struggling to move the ball effectively through the air. So far he's hauled in 15 passes for a team-leading 270 yards, and could be in store for a lot more looks as he's proven more effective in the other facets, such as the blocking the new offensive staff puts a premium on.
"I'm ready to make plays when I have the opportunity," Bushman said. "If the ball is thrown my way, I always want to come down with it, so it doesn't matter if we pass the ball or run the ball a lot. It matters that I'm doing my job."