After a season filled with pain, perseverance and big plays, Isaac Rex has a major decision to make
Redshirt sophomore is wrapping up his fourth year in Provo and trying to decide whether to return to BYU or enter the 2023 NFL draft
Fourth-year tight end Isaac Rex could have easily taken this year off, and nobody associated with the BYU football program would have blamed him.
Instead, Rex played through pain the entire season as he continues to recover from a devastating and gruesome fractured ankle he suffered in the Cougars’ 35-31 win over USC, the final regular-season game of the 2021 campaign.
“Isaac Rex is a tough, tough guy,” BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said in October. “He is playing really good football for us right now, and he is doing it despite not being 100% healthy. … He is not close to what he is capable of, due to that injury, and yet he practices every day, plays every week.”
“So yeah, it has been challenging. But it has been a great experience, and I really feel like I have shown myself that I can do hard things.” — BYU tight end Isaac Rex after coming back from a season-ending ankle injury in 2021
Rex certainly played in BYU’s final game of the 2022 regular season, catching two touchdown passes in the 35-26 win over Stanford. And he is expected to play in Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl against SMU (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC) as the Cougars attempt to make amends for last year’s 31-28 loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl and put a positive spin on a mildly disappointing season.
Then the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Rex will have a decision to make.
Declare for the NFL draft, or return to BYU for his fifth season?
Rex said Monday that he hasn’t “officially” made his decision yet, but is doing his due diligence, talking to as many people as possible, to figure out what would work best for him.
“Still trying to get as much information about whether coming back is the best thing, or leaving,” he said. “I am trying to figure it out right now. I will make that (decision) probably after the bowl game.”
If he does leave, it would be another big blow at the tight end position for the Cougars, because another talented TE who was believed to be the heir apparent to Rex at that spot, Dallin Holker, quit the team after the third game this season. Rex’s backup now is freshman Ethan Erickson, who has one career catch — for a 14-yard touchdown.
Meanwhile, Rex has performed as admirably as could be expected, catching 21 passes for 293 yards and six touchdowns while still being visibly hampered by the injury. The limp isn’t as evident as it was at the beginning of the season, but it is still there.
Has he ever thought about taking a game or two off, perhaps the bowl game?
No chance, said the son of former BYU standout Byron Rex.
“There has never been a game where I really wanted to sit out, but there have definitely been practices where I was like, ‘Dang, my ankle is killing me,’” Rex said. “… I have really wanted to show that I am a tough player, that I could play through injury. I never wanted to sit out. It has always been my goal to play this year and to be there for the team and contribute in any way that I can.
“So yeah, it has been challenging. But it has been a great experience, and I really feel like I have shown myself that I can do hard things.”
He’s also shown himself to be one of the better tight ends at a school that has produced more than its share of great ones, guys like Gordon Hudson, Chris Smith, Chad Lewis, Jonny Harline, Itula Mili, Dennis Pitta and Matt Bushman.
Rex currently has 78 catches for 942 yards and 21 touchdowns in his career. He is tied for ninth with Pitta in career touchdown catches at BYU, and is tied for second behind Hudson (22) for most touchdown catches by a tight end in BYU history.
“He has done a phenomenal job,” Roderick said. “He easily could have said, ‘I am going to sit this year out, and get healthy, or join the team midseason when I am full go.’ But he is all about the team. … He is not as nifty right now as what he used to be as a route runner. And he knows it, and he doesn’t care.”
But don’t be fooled. The big guy is hurting. Yet he does it all with a smile on his face, and has made a point of “not taking myself too seriously,” even when he caught 12 touchdown passes — tied for fifth in BYU history for a single season — his redshirt freshman year (2020) catching throws from Zach Wilson.
There is pain and discomfort every single day, he said.
“It is weird, having a bunch of plates and screws in your ankle,” he said. “So I am like an old man now. When the weather starts changing, when it starts getting cold, I can feel it in my ankle. It is definitely weird and challenging, but it has been awesome just to be with the team and play.”
Head coach Kalani Sitake has also noticed, and is appreciative of the sacrifices Rex has made for the program.
“Everybody knows that he is struggling through injury and that he is not 100%. You can see it. But it doesn’t change the way he plays, the intensity and how physical he is at the line of scrimmage, and what we require him to do in route running and catching the ball,” Sitake said.
“He does it all, and that’s motivating to our guys. He is slowly getting there to being 100%. He is more at that point now than he has been all year. He is a guy that hasn’t really been able to recover because every week he keeps battling and battling.”
Defensive end Tyler Batty was also part of BYU’s 2017 signing class, before the two high-profile recruits served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Rex to Samoa and Batty to Spain.
“Favorite Isaac Rex moment? His touchdown celebrations,” Batty said Monday. “I love seeing Isaac in the end zone, so anytime Isaac is in the end zone with the ball in his hands is probably one of my favorite moments for him.”
Teammates, Roderick and Sitake say Rex’s greatest attribute might not be his physical prowess, but his mental toughness.
“That injury he came back from is not easy. He has defied a lot of the medical (predictions). When they were looking at it, they thought he wouldn’t be able to play at all this year,” Sitake said. “And not only has he played, he has been very effective and has played well. Not a huge drop-off from what he has done in the past. I am hoping, and you are seeing it in practice, that he will be at the best he has been all year in the bowl game. I can’t wait to see it happen.”
Has playing when he hasn’t been at full strength been detrimental to Rex’s chances of being drafted in 2023 if he comes out? Probably.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. listed Rex as the No. 10 tight end in the country on his Big Board of 2023 draft prospects last spring. But the native of San Clemente, California, has dropped considerably on draft boards throughout the season.
Technically, he could play two more years at BYU, because the 2020 season does not count due to the NCAA’s rules during the pandemic.
Rex is currently No. 35 on nfldraftbuzz.com’s rankings of tight end prospects. He’s not among the 32 tight ends listed on drafttek.com.
But he’s still smiling. After all, there’s another game to prepare for, a game in which the quarterback who has thrown all six of Rex’s TD receptions this year, Jaren Hall, probably won’t play.
“Yeah, we are going through some changes within the program, but for the players, we are all (focused). I feel like this last week has been one of the best week of practices we have ever had, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Rex said. “They are flying around. They are making plays and they are trying to impress these new coaches that are coming in. (New defensive coordinator) Jay Hill has gotten a lot of people motivated. He has been just a great addition to this coaching staff.
“You know, there are guys coming in, coming out, there are guys that are leaving, there is a lot of uncertainty, you can say, within the coaching staff and guys leaving to the transfer portal. But for the guys that are staying, it has been cool to see everyone just rally around each other, and want to go win this bowl game. So yeah, I feel like we haven’t really missed a beat.”
New Mexico Bowl on the air
BYU (7-5) vs. SMU (7-5)
Dec. 17, 5:30 p.m. MST
University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM