Just make plays.

That is the advice for Dallin Holker from former Cougars tight end Chad Lewis, who knows what he’s talking about.

Lewis represents a BYU fraternity of tight ends of which Holker is seeking membership. Induction into this group costs everything a player can give on the football field.

The 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior-to-be from Lehi certainly fits the physical mold of the likes of Lewis, Dennis Pitta, Jonny Harline, Clay Brown, Gordon Hudson, and the many others just like them. They were all blessed with size, enough speed and good hands — and they all made plays.

• Clay Brown — caught Jim McMahon’s 41-yard pass as time expired to upset No. 19 SMU 46-45 in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

• Gordon Hudson — set an NCAA record with 259 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a 56-28 victory over Utah in 1981.

• Chris Smith — averaged 32 yards on six receptions (6-194), including a 76-yard touchdown pass from Ty Detmer in BYU’s 70-31 win over Utah on Nov. 18, 1989.

• Chad Lewis — caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Steve Sarkisian in BYU’s 28-23 overtime victory against No. 20 Wyoming to win the 1996 WAC championship game and earn a New Year’s Day date in the Cotton Bowl.

• Jonny Harline — caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from John Beck as time expired to beat Utah 33-31 in Salt Lake City on Nov. 25, 2006.

• Dennis Pitta — caught a 23-yard pass from Hall on fourth-and-four with 6:06 remaining to set up the game-winning touchdown in BYU’s 14-13 victory against No. 3 Oklahoma on Sept. 5, 2009.

• Andrew George — caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Hall in overtime to beat No. 21 Utah 26-23 in 2009.

Isaac Rex — caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Baylor Romney in the back of the end zone with 1:19 to play to seal a 27-17 win against No. 19 Arizona State last September.

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For Holker, his biggest play to date has nothing to do with catching touchdowns but everything to do with making a play. When his big and unexpected moment arrived on Thanksgiving weekend, in the middle of college football’s most iconic playground, he bent down, picked up the pigskin and started running like there was no tomorrow.

Grab-and-go

Chaos at midfield. A play designed to go one way took a potentially disastrous turn.

“It was an inside zone run play. I was on the left side,” Holker said. “My job was to block the linebacker.”

Trailing 31-28 with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter at USC, BYU quarterback Jaren Hall handed the ball to Tyler Allgeier at the Cougars’ 45-yard line. Allgeier, who was on pace to set BYU’s all-time single-season rushing record and with only three fumbles in his previous 424 career carries, coughed the ball up at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It was the last thing anyone expected.

“It all happened so fast,” Holker said. “The guy I was supposed to block went into a different gap. So, I was going up field to find someone else to hit. There was a big pile and suddenly, the ball came out.”

USC linebacker Ralen Goforth hit Allgeier and knocked the football from his grasp. Amid the violence of the play, the ball tumbled freely to the turf with the combatants completely unaware, except for Holker.

“I picked it up and started running,” he said. “I didn’t know if Tyler had been whistled down or not, but as I ran, nobody followed. Everybody stood still.”

BYU tight end Dallin Holker carries the ball during game against USC in Los Angeles, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. | Ashley Landis, Associated Press

As Holker galloped through the secondary, he ran through history. He was on the move in that same stadium where Bart Starr quarterbacked the Packers to victory in the first Super Bowl in 1967. It’s where Larry Csonka and the undefeated Dolphins completed the NFL’s only perfect season, and it’s where Carl Lewis ran for three gold medals and long-jumped for a fourth in the 1984 Olympics.

In his own Forrest Gump moment, Holker just kept running.

“I was just wondering where everybody was at?” he said. “I turned around and saw the USC guys on the sideline. They had no idea what was happening. Then, they started yelling at their players and that’s when I knew the play was still live.”

Holker ran 22 yards to the USC 25, turning a near disaster into a new set of downs. The Cougars scored a few plays later to win 35-31.

“Going back on the field prior to that drive, we knew we had to score,” he said. “I just prepared myself mentally to be ready and as soon as that play was over, I thought, ‘Oh, that was kinda cool.’ I knew it would help us out in the end.”

Mission months

Holker didn’t realize it at the time, but 12 months prior to his fumble return, on Thanksgiving weekend 2020, he was being prepared to “make a play” like that, but in a much different setting in Wenatchee, Washington

He wasn’t looking for linebackers per se, but people who would listen to a simple message while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just as a play can change a football game, Holker carried a message he believed could change a person’s life — and along the way he was tutored to recognize the similarities.      

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 “On that play at USC, I was supposed to go to the linebacker, but he blitzed into a different gap. I just wanted to help our team, so I kept going up field to find someone else to block. I didn’t give up. I love my teammates. I was doing it for them,” he said. “On my mission, during times when things were going wrong, my love for Christ kept me going. We had an important message to share and just kept pushing along. It’s a lot like what goes on during a football game. You just keep going.”

Twelve months earlier, on Thanksgiving weekend 2019, Holker was a new missionary learning a new language in the town of Combarbala in central Chile. This was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that redirected him to Washington.

“It was hard. I didn’t know a lot and barely knew the language,” he said. “I just tried to smile and be nice. I tried to do what little things I could do and do them right. As the mission went along, I became more comfortable.”

Holker is following that same developmental path at tight end for BYU.

Back at BYU

“Coming back, I felt so rushed to get ready for the (2021) season,” Holker said. He played in all 13 games last season and caught 14 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown.

Today, 12 months removed from his mission and with spring practice complete, he feels like a new man.

BYU tight end Dallin Holker has the ball batted away by Arizona cornerback Treydan Stukes during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. BYU won 24-16. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I feel like I’ve developed a ton,” he said. “I surprised myself with just how much more comfortable and confident I had become since the season ended. I’m stronger and faster and feel more confident with my body and what I am able to do.”

In addition to changing his body, he is also changing numbers from No. 32 to No. 5 and with Isaac Rex still on the mend, Holker is preparing to be in the starting lineup at South Florida on Sept. 3.

Isaac Rex Injury

Rex delivered a dazzling performance in 2020 with a dozen Zach Wilson touchdown receptions — tied for the most among tight ends in college football. So, it was understandable when Holker was listed at No. 2 on the depth chart.

Just before halftime at USC, on an incomplete pass in the back of the end zone, Rex landed awkwardly and broke his right ankle. In that moment of misfortune, Holker’s responsibility within the offense changed.

“I was in on that play, but I didn’t see what had happened,” Holker said. “When they showed the replay in the stadium, I saw his ankle. You hate to see things like that happen to your brothers, people you love and look up to, but I was excited for the opportunity to go out there.”

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Holker caught three passes for 56 yards. During the four offensive drives that he touched the ball, BYU scored touchdowns on three of them.

“I felt like I had an opportunity to show a little bit of what I am capable of doing,” he said. “It was nice to show that.”

In the twists and turns and sometimes cruel irony of sports, it was the injury that ended the season for Rex that put Holker on the field with the assignment to block someone when Allgeier fumbled the ball with 5:30 to play.

The mentors

Lewis and Pitta are Holker’s favorite BYU tight ends. The two superstars combined for 339 receptions for 4,334 yards and 32 touchdowns over their Cougar careers.

“Dallin is an athletic tight end with a wide receiver-like skill,” said Pitta, who won 37 games during his four seasons at BYU (2004, 2007-09). “With the combination of size and speed that he possesses, he can be a matchup nightmare for any defender.”

Holker’s playing style mirrors Pitta in a variety of ways.

“Dallin Holker has a lot of Dennis Pitta in his football soul,” said Lewis, who played at BYU between 1993 and 1996 and is BYU’s associate athletic director over development. “He moves really nice and makes finding seams and zones look really easy. He has great hands and is a tough competitor.”

With his office just two floors above the weight room in the student athlete building, Lewis is frequently in Holker’s ear.

“He always tells me, ‘It’s not about height or weight, it’s about going out there and making plays,’” Holker said. “When you watch Chad, you can see that — he just made plays.”

Lewis practiced what he is preaching. While known for catching passes and leaping defenders, yes, he made ‘leaping’ cool long before current Cougar Masen Wake was born. But Lewis had a knack for making plays, no matter what he was called on to do.

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Five times during all those games at tight end, the 6-foot-6 former walk-on also blocked five kicks, including a field goal at No. 17 Notre Dame in 1994. BYU trailed 14-13 late in the third quarter when Lewis got his hands on Scott Cengia’s field goal try. The Cougars scored on the ensuing drive and converted a two-point try to stun the Irish 21-14.

“When I blocked that field goal it just felt like magic,” Lewis said. “We were destined to win that game.”

Pitta also has a victory against Notre Dame on his resume. He caught a pass for four yards as a true freshman in the Cougars’ 20-17 win over the Irish in Provo in 2004.

Lewis and Pitta just made plays and their understudy, Holker, will get his own shot at upsetting Notre Dame Oct. 8 in Las Vegas.

The biggest play

Holker made a significant play of his own two weeks ago when he proposed to Taye Raymond, a member of BYU’s track and field team.

With help from defensive end Tyler Batty and his family, Holker took Raymond on a horseback ride to a predetermined location above Payson.

“We had found a place and set some things up beforehand,” he said. “I asked her right there. She was all good. Thank goodness!”

The two are scheduled to be married June 25.

The great debate

There is potential for a lively debate over who made the biggest play to beat USC. On fourth-and-6, BYU sophomore defensive back Kaleb Hayes tackled Trojans receiver Gary Bryant Jr. short of the first down marker with 38 seconds to play to seal the win.

Moments earlier, freshman running back Jackson McChesney ran for a seven-yard touchdown to give BYU a 35-31 lead with 3:57 remaining. Prior to McChesney’s run, Allgeier finished his night with 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Hall threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns on a pair of bad feet and linebackers Max Tooley (sophomore) and Ben Bywater (freshman) combined for 26 tackles to lead the defense.

Head coach Kalani Sitake didn’t hesitate to call it an overall team win, the 10th of the season, but without the heads-up play by Holker, in the middle of a chaotic moment at midfield, midway through the fourth quarter, those performances, and a thrilling win in front of an estimated 30,000 BYU fans in Los Angeles, could have all been for naught.

Holker did his job. Acting on instinct, he bent down, picked up the pigskin and made a play — running like there was no tomorrow.

Turns out, there is a tomorrow and for Holker, with Rex on the mend, tomorrow is here. In time, he may catch up to those legendary tight ends, including Lewis and Pitta, in receptions and touchdowns, but as for his ability to make a play, Holker’s BYU career is already off and running.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Gordon Hudson was 6 feet tall. He was actually 6-4. It also stated that Max Hall completed a touchdown pass to Jonny Harline to defeat Utah in 2006. John Beck threw that game-winning TD.