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Was BYU’s Isaac Rex slighted in a ranking of top returning college tight ends?

Isaac Rex makes a good case to be included high with Ute Brant Kuithe

BYU tight end Isaac catches a touchdown pass during the Cougars’ win over UCF in the 2020 Boca Raton Bowl.
BYU tight end Isaac Rex (83) catches a touchdown against the UCF Knights during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What do Brant Kuithe, Isaac Rex and Cole Fotheringham have in common?

They are all quality tight ends who play for Utah and BYU.

They have size, great hands and are big-time athletes. They get targeted because they produce.

Kuithe and Fotheringham are listed with UCLA’s Greg Dulcich and Washington’s Cade Otton as the very best tight ends in the Pac-12 this coming season. They are proven playmakers.

Pro Football Focus, a popular internet website that uses extensive analytics to break down college and NFL players, lists Kuithe as one of the top five returning college tight ends for 2021.

No. 1 is Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar, followed by Arik Gilbert of LSU, who is fiddling with transferring from LSU to Florida. The No. 3 ranked tight end is Jalen Wydermyer of Texas A&M, followed by Isaiah Likely of Coastal Carolina, followed by No. 5 Kuithe.

Solid list.

But what about Rex, who produced more touchdowns in 2020 as a freshman than any of them?

I think he got slighted.

It may be that those listed are multiyear upperclassmen who are NFL draft targets. Rex basically is the only tight end with upper echelon TD catches who is not in this category.

Granted, a few on the list, like Kuithe, only got a four-game season in the COVID-19 year, but most of the returning tight ends from a year ago did get a full slate of games.

Rex did not play against any Power Five defenses, but he did have Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft, as his triggerman. Some will hold that against him. Fair enough.

Still, Rex deserves a harder look.

Rex was one of the most prolific touchdown catching tight ends of 2020, right up there with the very best, a generational player, Florida’s Kyle Pitts, the No. 4 pick by Atlanta.

Both Pitts and Rex had 12 touchdown passes in 2020. Nobody else did.

Pitts had 18 touchdown catches in his three-year Florida career. Rex had more TD catches than anybody at BYU since wide receiver Austin Collie (15) in 2008. He is the first tight end at BYU to catch 12 TDs since Jonny Harline in 2006. Only Jim McMahon target tight end Clay Brown (1980) had more (15).

PFF does a great job of breaking down performances. With the tight ends, player effectiveness is not only related to in-line blocking, catches, target/catch percentage, catches under pressure and coverage but also yards gained after a catch.

PFF doesn’t mess around when they break down a position player. BYU fans enjoyed how they ranked Zach Wilson and O-lineman Brady Christensen for all of 2020. They had elite PFF numbers.

The yards after catch was specifically impressive for Kuithe.

Wrote PFF analyst Anthony Treash of Kuithe: “Over the last two years, the Utah product has broken 16 tackles on 59 receptions while averaging 7.3 yards after the catch per reception and generating an 86.7 receiving grade. That broken tackle total ranks first among Power Five tight ends in that span.”

The talented Ute excelled at breaking tackles after hauling in the ball. He averaged 17.7 per catch with six touchdowns in 2019 and 11.4 yards per catch with one touchdown in 2018. In his four games in 2020, he had 17 catches for 160 yards, a 9.4 average. His best season at Utah was 2019 with 602 yards on 34 catches.

Just for laughs, let’s compare 2020 catches, yards and average yards per catch for PFF’s top five returning tight ends with Rex and Kuithe.

Make of it what you will.

I asked Treash why his top five tight end rankings left out Rex.

His response:

“While Rex’s box score production is a tad inflated due to the offense he was in and having Zach Wilson as his quarterback, he is still one of the top five returning non-Power Five tight ends. He showed a lot of growth throughout the 2020 season as an inline blocker and flashed some quality reps defeating single coverage. In 2021, we need to see the latter on a more consistent basis.”

PPF’s unranked Rex: 37 for 429 yards, 11.6 average, 12 TDs.

  1. Kolar: 44 for 591, 13.4 average and 7 TDs.
  2. Gilbert: 3 for 368, 10.5, 2 TDs.
  3. Wyndermeyer: 46 for 506, 11.0 average, 6 TDs.
  4. Likely: 30 for 601, 20 average, 5 TDs.
  5. Kuithe: 17 for 160, 9.4 average, 0 TDs.

During spring practice at BYU, Rex told Jay Drew of the Deseret News it isn’t in his nature to go out looking for attention.

But his numbers were not created out of thin air. He was as much a part of Wilson’s success in 2020 as seventh-round pick receiver Dax Milne and many others

“I know I am not a big hotshot guy,” Rex said in the spring interview. “I don’t want people to think I think I’m too cool. I am just a BYU student, football player, son, and boyfriend, honestly. … I want people to feel comfortable around me. I want people to open up and have fun with me, not like try to be all serious all the time. That’s basically it.”

Well, he is in the thick of big things in 2021 whether PFF rankings recognize his work in 2020 or not.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and tight end coach Steve Clark are certain to make sure he is not underutilized in the Cougar offense. He may be the biggest building block this fall.

Jurassic Rex.

Can’t miss him.

Even if PPF apparently did.