When it comes to making an impact on the football field, few BYU players have produced more the past four years on their respective sides of the ball than tight end Matt Bushman and defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga.
That’s true even though Bushman missed the entire 2020 season with an Achilles rupture.
But when the 2021 NFL draft unfolds this weekend in Cleveland, Bushman and Tonga are not sure bets to be drafted.
Scouts are understandably nervous over Bushman’s health, although the 6-foot-5, 240-pound multi-sport athlete from Tucson, Arizona, looked fully recovered during BYU’s pro day on March 26, crisply running routes and hauling in passes from quarterback Zach Wilson.
“I am feeling good,” Bushman said after pro day. “I was able to perform out there, show I am in football shape, and able to cut, run routes, do whatever.”
Bushman didn’t run the 40 or do the broad jump, he said, because he didn’t have time to work on those aspects of pro day because he was rehabbing his Achilles for nearly six months after surgery.
“I think the big thing for me was just show that I am football ready. I ran some routes really well and caught the ball really well, so it was a good (showing).” — BYU tight end Matt Bushman at pro day
“I think the big thing for me was just show that I am football ready,” Bushman said. “I ran some routes really well and caught the ball really well, so it was a good (showing).”
As for Tonga, he appeared to have hit a plateau in 2020, and questions about his stamina persist.
The shame for both players is that they faced the same decision that juniors Wilson, Dax Milne and Brady Christensen faced this year before opting to turn pro. Bushman and Tonga decided to return to BYU for one last shot at producing a memorable season; both probably would have been drafted last April.
Of course, Bushman’s plans to help BYU return to its glory days were scuttled the week before the opener at Navy when he went down during practice.
Tonga appeared in 11 of 12 games — he sat out the Houston game for undisclosed reasons — and made 36 tackles and 2.5 sacks. In 2019, Tonga made 45 tackles and one sack in 13 games.
Bushman finished with 125 catches for 1,719 yards and nine touchdowns in a phenomenal three-season career. He ranks 20th all-time in receptions, 22nd in receiving yards and tied for 45th in touchdowns.
Among tight ends, Bushman ranks only behind Dennis Pitta (221), Gordon Hudson (178) and Chris Smith (137) and is tied with Itula Mili (125) for total receptions.
“My biggest strength is my catching ability,” Bushman said. “I think I am a natural receiving tight end and have some of the best hands in this class. That is a big thing for me and something I have a lot of confidence in.”
Bushman put up 23 bench presses (225 pounds) to answer any questions about his upper-body strength and blocking ability. He felt like he answered questions about the Achilles with his “solid” showings in the 3-cone drill (7.13) and 20-yard shuttle (4.41).
“Once I can prove my Achilles is healthy, I will be ready to go,” he said.
While Bushman headed to Arizona to train and rehab, Tonga went to Florida.
Tonga weighed around 335 pounds during the season, but dropped to 310 in the Sunshine State. He “didn’t feel too comfortable” at that weight, and got back to around 325 for pro day.
Tonga did 35 bench presses and thinks he should have had more “because some didn’t count,” and said BYU’s practices made him a better defender because he faced the likes of other draft hopefuls Christensen, Tristen Hoge and Chandon Herring a lot.
Tonga moves well for a big man — he ran a 5.02-second 40 — and was confident last month that he would be drafted. He consulted with former Cougars in the NFL — the Jets’ Harvey Langi and the Browns’ Sione Takitaki — during the process and “got his mind right” during the predraft process.
“I have talked to a good amount of teams,” he said. “I would love to play for any team, honestly. But Florida is a beautiful state. … I had a chance to talk to (Tampa Bay) and we got to talk a lot about their defensive line and how I might fit in with them.”
Bushman, who is the son-in-law of former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis, acknowledged there are concerns over his injury, but has also been told that teams have plenty of film from his three great seasons “and they know how to analyze film, they know I can play.”
Prospects are always hesitant to discuss which teams have shown the most interest, but Bushman conceded in March that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Las Vegas Raiders had reached out multiple times.
He has a medical screening with the Raiders’ staff “and had a good interview with them. Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was at BYU’s pro day and chatted with Bushman.
“Hopefully I was able to impress him a little bit,” Bushman said.