PROVO — Early in the second quarter of BYU’s overtime win over USC last Saturday, senior tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau caught a 14-yard pass for a first down.
It was his first reception in almost one year.
Last September in Seattle, Laulu-Pututau suffered a season-ending knee injury against Washington. Weeks later, he underwent a groundbreaking ACL surgery that is projected to return injured athletes to the field 40 percent faster than traditional surgery.
The Huskies invade Provo Saturday (1:30 p.m., MDT, ABC/ESPN2) and the Cougars are thrilled that Laulu-Pututau is back.
For starters, his presence on the field, along with tight end Matt Bushman, makes the BYU offense more formidable.
“It’s awesome just having another weapon like that. He and Bushman at tight end, they’re two really great receiving and blocking tight ends,” said wide receiver Gunner Romney. “It’s awesome to have another weapon, another thing that defenses have to scheme for and prepare for. It’s great to see him making a comeback and starting to make plays on the field again.”
With opposing teams focusing on Bushman, Laulu-Pututau’s return makes the Cougars tougher to defend.
“You saw him come in against USC when teams are trying to bracket me or guys are double-teaming me,” Bushman said. “Once Moroni comes on the field, it’s another option. Moroni’s a dog and he can make plays. We’re hoping we can get both of us on the field at the same time. With two big tight ends that can catch the ball, it’s hard to cover. We’re really excited for him coming back and how good he’s doing.”
Laulu-Pututau, a 6-foot-5, 240-pounder from Hyrum, ended up catching two passes for 36 yards last week against USC.
He missed much of fall camp due to academic issues, which were resolved. But he wasn’t able to play in the season-opening loss to Utah or in the double-overtime win at Tennessee as he has battled back from injuries.
“It’s a long process. I’m proud of what he’s done,” said tight ends coach Steve Clark. “He’s still not 100 percent. We’re still being careful with him. It’s day-to-day with him. One day it’s feels great and the next day, it’s just killing him and he can barely walk. He’s pretty sore right now. But tomorrow, he could be great. We’ve got to be careful with him.”
Not having Laulu-Pututau most of last season and early this year has limited the Cougar offense.
“He’s just a good player. He can stretch the field. It’s tough to double Matt when you have Moroni out there,” he said. “We can use some more traditional run sets to throw the ball out of. He’ll help us a ton in that area.”
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said having Laulu-Pututau at his disposal is “really important” and he loves employing formations featuring two tight ends “especially if you have tight ends that can spread the field and guys who can block and receive. Having him back and being able to get some snaps out of him has been a big difference for us.”
The combination of Bushman and Laulu-Pututau allows Grimes to open up his playbook. Grimes said they are a lot a like.
“They each have slightly different skill sets but very similar. They’re both similar guys in that they have large frames, big catching radiuses and we can do similar things with both of them. When one of them is in the game and the other is not, it doesn’t have to change what we’re doing at all.”
Not only did Laulu-Pututau miss most of last season due to injury, he sustained a season-ending foot injury just days before the 2017 season opener.
“Nobody’s more frustrated than Moroni,” Clark said. “He’s upbeat but in quiet moments, he’ll say how hard it is. He’s a great kid. I’d take him the rest of my career. He’s fun to be around and he doesn’t need to say much to be a leader. The way he carries himself on the field says ‘leader.’ He’s in one of the hardest majors at BYU, construction management. That’s a tough one. He’s struggled with it but he’s fought through it. He’s eligible and on track (to graduate). That says a lot about him.”
Laulu-Pututau, who was a wide receiver before he switched to tight end, has a knack for making plays.
“Moroni’s football IQ is very high. Because he played receiver, he knows how to run routes as a receiver,” Clark said. “But he also understands schemes, blocking schemes and defensive fronts. He doesn’t miss assignments. He just doesn’t. He’s very vocal on the field but he’s quiet on the field.”
Clark was happy to see Laulu-Pututau make a catch in a game last week for the first time in almost one year.
“The fun thing about it was, Matt was right there when he caught it,” Clark said. “As Moroni was pushing forward, Matt was knocking guys and trying to help him.”
Coach Kalani Sitake said like the other seniors on the team, Laulu-Pututau is eager to make an impact.
“Moroni fits that, especially since he’s been off the field with injuries, the sense of urgency that he wants to be on the field and make plays,” he said. “It doesn’t just mean catching balls. It’s the little things like blocking and being part of the team. It’s been nice to see him in that role and being a leader. We’ve missed him a lot. He’s been doing a great job with other roles that he’s been given.”
Cougars on the air
No. 22 Washington (2-1) at BYU (2-1)
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (MDT)
Radio: KSL 1160