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‘Team guys’: Why Isaac Rex and fellow tight ends are contributing in different way this year

Having caught 12 touchdown passes last year, Rex has been met with double teams and bracketing defenses this year, but he’s not complaining

BYU’s Isaac Rex is hit by Virginia cornerback Darrius Bratton during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Oct. 30, 2021.
BYU tight end Isaac Rex is hit by Virginia cornerback Darrius Bratton during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Rex, who was one of the Cougars’ primary pass catchers last season, has been more of a blocker in 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

By almost any measure, it appears to outsiders that BYU tight end Isaac Rex is in a sophomore slump.

The 6-foot-6, 247-pound Californian isn’t even close to putting up the eye-popping numbers through 10 games in 2021 like he did last year, when he caught 12 touchdown passes and was named a Freshman All-American in at least one national publication.

But nothing could be further from the truth, says Cougars tight ends coach Steve Clark, who raved after practice Wednesday — held indoors in Provo because the outdoor practice field gets too slick when it is cold — about how much Rex has improved this season in areas that don’t show up in the box score.

“I’m very happy with how much better Isaac is in the run game — and the pass game,” Clark said, noting that star running back Tyler Allgeier wouldn’t be putting up record-breaking rushing totals and receivers such as Puka Nacua, Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u wouldn’t be making explosive plays downfield if not for the efforts of Rex, his fellow tight ends and a makeshift offensive line.

“Isaac’s flexibility has gotten a lot better,” Clark said. “He’s the guy blocking on the edge, and he is challenged every week because that is where we are going. In our wide zone schemes, that’s where we are running. So when the run game goes well, it is because of Isaac.”

The 8-2 Cougars, No. 14 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, will meet 3-7 Georgia Southern on Saturday at Paulson Stadium (2 p.m. MST) in a first-time meeting that will be available on the streaming service ESPN+.

Rex, who is from San Clemente, California, enters the game with 18 catches for 191 yards and three touchdowns, a far cry from last year when he finished with 37 catches for 429 yards and 12 TDs, tied for most TD catches for a tight end in the country with Florida’s Kyle Pitts — now playing for the Atlanta Falcons.

Speaking to a group of reporters Wednesday night via Zoom, Rex said he’s not stressing about lower numbers this year because the Cougars are still winning.

“Well, basically, I have been working a ton on my blocking game this year,” he said. “I have just been trying to do what is best for the team. So as long as I go into the meetings and coaches are happy with how I am playing, I am happy, because I do what they ask me to do.

“I am not too worried about trying to match what I did last year,” he continued. “I am more focused on this year and doing what is best for the team.”

Clark said Rex and fellow tight end Masen Wake, who is sort of a hybrid fullback, had fantastic blocking games when BYU pummeled Virginia 66-49 offensively behind Allgeier’s 266 rushing yards, third most in a single game in BYU history.

“Isaac came in as a redshirt freshman last year and we didn’t think we would have to use him as much (until Matt Bushman got hurt),” Clark said. “This year he is a lot more prepared and he can do it. The teams we played last year weren’t as good. We are going against much better defensive personnel this year and he’s handled it really well and done a great job with it. So I am very happy with him.”

Actually, none of the tight ends are seeing as many touches as last year. Wake has nine catches for 50 yards and a touchdown, Dallin Holker has nine catches for 127 yards and a TD, and Carter Wheat has one catch for five yards.

But morale remains high, said Clark, who also works with Lane Lunt, Bentley Hanshaw, Ben Tuipulotu and Ethan Erickson in the tight ends room. Erickson has been battling a bad back and is trying to add some weight, “but he is going to be great some day,” Clark said.

“These guys don’t have as many catches (as they would like), but they are great about it,” Clark said. “They understand their roles and what they need to do. We are doing a lot of seven-man protections, and we don’t free release them a ton. They are team guys, and they are going to do what the team needs them to do. … In football, you have to find happiness in seeing other guys be productive and make the big plays, knowing you had a part in it even though you might not get the recognition that they do.”

Nacua, who leads the Cougars in receiving yards with 671 and is second in catches with 34, said the receivers are flourishing because defenses have to bracket or double-team Rex.

“Everybody knows what he is capable of. They are not going to leave him one-on-one with a corner. He has put that on tape this year, so the confidence that we feel when we go four wide, and we have Isaac out there, it is like having another receiver pretty much.”

Pau’u leads the Cougars with 46 catches and is second with 526 yards, but he won’t play this week and most likely won’t play next week vs. USC due to an undisclosed injury.

“I know that one of Isaac’s favorite players is (Kansas City Chiefs tight end) Travis Kelce,” Nacua said. “I don’t know if we have a Tyreek Hill — it might be me. … We are confident that whenever we throw Isaac the ball, he is coming down with it. That’s for sure.”

Clark said he expects all the tight ends to be back next year.

Last week, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told the Deseret News that the Cougars are trying to get the ball to Rex in the red zone, but teams are bracketing him and paying a lot more attention to him after watching what he did last year.

“They have made it harder on us this year,” Roderick said. “We ran a play in the Virginia game that I think Isaac scored five touchdowns on last year, and we have yet to throw a completion on it this year. It was like an automatic last year. And this year, people are on it. … So I gotta do better at finding ways to get the ball to those guys.”