Dallin Holker’s return and BYU’s embarrassment of riches at the tight end position
While Holker was serving in Chile and Yakima, Washington, Rex was emerging as the next great Cougars tight end, catching 12 touchdown passes in 2020
After spring football camp ended in 2019, a headline in a local newspaper blared a rather distressing update for Cougar fans: “Healthy tight ends are in short supply at BYU.”
Aside from blossoming superstar Matt Bushman, the article detailed, the Cougars were shorthanded because promising tight end Dallin Holker made a surprise, last-minute decision to go on a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and converted receiver Moroni Laulu-Pututau was still trying to overcome a Lisfranc foot injury.
Flash forward to 2021.
Holker is back from his mission — for the second time (more on that later) — and even though Bushman is now trying to make the Las Vegas Raiders’ roster and sophomore Hank Tuipulotu is hanging it up after multiple knee surgeries, BYU seemingly has an embarrassment of riches at the tight end position.
“Life is good,” tight ends coach Steve Clark said at BYU football media day on June 17.
What a difference two years makes.
“It was a pretty tough decision, but I thought about it a lot and prayed and talked to my parents, and I just knew it was the most important thing that I needed to do, to go back and finish. I knew that football would still be there when I came back. I knew I just needed to go back and show my love for God and do the best I can and serve the Lord.” — BYU tight end Dallin Holker.
Of course, a big reason for Clark’s contentment is the emergence last season of Isaac Rex, who was returning from his mission to Samoa at about the same time Holker was preparing to go to Vina Del Mar, Chile.
Bushman held down the fort in one of BYU’s most storied positions in 2019, catching 47 passes for 688 yards and four touchdowns, so that ominous headline turned out to be much ado about nothing. Last year, the Tucson, Arizona, native sustained a season-ending Achilles injury five days before the opener against Navy, and the Cougars were supposedly shorthanded at TE again.
“He was a lifesaver,” Clark said.
The returned missionary earned Freshman All-America honors, catching 37 passes for 429 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2020. He’s arguably the top returning tight end in the country in 2021 as BYU breaks in a new quarterback. Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Jacob Conover are the candidates to replace the record-setting Zach Wilson.
“Isaac is having a great summer,” said Clark, always good for a witty one-liner or fresh dose of sarcasm. “His family lives on the mean streets of San Clemente (California). He goes down there with Jaren (Hall) and they work out with John Beck and they do the same tour that Zach went on when he rode his bike down there every day, back and forth every day, eight hours or something like that.”
Sitting side by side at an interview table during media day, Rex and Holker also got in their fair share of zingers, jokes and laughs. One of the 6-foot-6, 247-pound Rex’s most endearing traits is that he doesn’t take himself seriously. And neither does Holker.
“Honestly, I feel like have become a better athlete this offseason,” Rex said, getting serious. “I have worked on my speed and strength, and I am getting in the weight room more often, and watching a lot more film. I feel ready to go.”
Having returned from his mission in late March — for good this time — Holker’s readiness level is more of a concern. He said getting “missionary legs” upon returning from two years away from football and serious conditioning, weight training is a “thing” and not just some supposition from outsiders.
“It was a little weird at the beginning. It takes time to adjust and get back into everything, for sure,” Holker said. “When I first got back, we were running and doing things and I felt so awkward. But with time it started to come back. I feel a lot better now, more confident in what I can do.”
When the pandemic hit a year ago, Holker was sent home for awhile, like most missionaries from the U.S. serving in foreign countries. He was ultimately given the chance to remain home and end his mission a year or so early, or serve the remainder in Yakima, Washington. He chose the latter.
“It was a pretty tough decision, but I thought about it a lot and prayed and talked to my parents, and I just knew it was the most important thing that I needed to do, to go back and finish,” he said. “I knew that football would still be there when I came back. I knew I just needed to go back and show my love for God and do the best I can and serve the Lord.”
Sophomore Masen Wake is listed as Rex’s backup on BYU’s post-spring depth chart, but that’s a bit misleading because the 6-1, 250-pound Wake is more of a fullback than a tight end. Redshirt freshman Carter Wheat is actually Rex’s backup, if only because guys who didn’t participate in spring camp, such as Holker and the Nacua brothers — Puka and Samson — were not included.
Other tight ends to keep an eye on, Clark said, are Bentley Hanshaw, Lane Lunt and freshman Ben Tuipulotu, Hank’s brother.
As for Hank Tuipulotu, Clark said the rising junior is still around and coaches want him to stay involved with the program because of his gregariousness and leadership abilities.
“He didn’t want to (retire),” Clark said. “It wasn’t easy for him to come to that decision. But Hank has a higher calling, I believe, in life than what he is doing now. He could be president some day.”