After former freshman All-American Isaac Rex announced last December that he was returning for a fifth year in the program, tight end didn’t figure to be a position of need for Cougars coaches as they began scouring the transfer portal for quarterbacks, receivers, cornerbacks and defensive linemen.

Those spots were believed to be BYU’s biggest deficiencies heading into the 2023 season and the Big 12, and coaches have filled them with the likes of quarterback Kedon Slovis, receivers Darius Lassister and Keelan Marion, cornerback Eddie Heckard and defensive linemen Jackson Cravens and Isaiah Bagnah.

“Anthony Olsen and Nason Coleman have been doing really well. Couple of young, athletic guys. Both are going to be awesome.” — BYU tight end Ethan Erickson

So it was mildly surprising on Wednesday when the Cougars added a tight end from the junior college ranks, 6-foot-3, 255-pound Ray Paulo. The rising junior grew up in Pago Pago, American Samoa and sandwiched two seasons at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California, around a mission to Alabama for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I chose BYU for a number of reasons, but one of the deciding factors was (its) affiliation with my religion,” Paulo said in an AHC news release. “They play several top-tier programs and I believe this will help prepare me to play at the next level.”

Paulo joins a group directed by veteran coach Steve Clark that includes experienced players such as Rex — listed as a fifth-year junior — redshirt sophomore Ethan Erickson and senior fullback Masen Wake (fullbacks are grouped with tight ends in BYU’s system).

Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said several times in spring camp that incoming freshman Jackson Bowers, a prized four-star recruit from Mesa, Arizona, could also make an immediate impact.

With Rex not doing much in spring ball because he’s a proven commodity and also because he’s still recovering from that devastating leg injury he sustained late in the 2021 season, guys such as Erickson, redshirt freshman Anthony Olsen and freshman walk-on Nason Coleman of Chandler, Arizona, got their chances to impress Clark and Roderick throughout March and early April.

Running back Mason Fakahua also joined the tight ends/fullbacks room; Erickson was shining until a hamstring injury made him miss the last couple of weeks.

“I was running with the ones, just to give Isaac a break, because it is his fifth year here,” Erickson said after the final spring practice. “It just gave him a little bit more time to recover so he could work on some other things. I was getting some good reps, and then just unfortunately had to get pulled out.”

Coleman, who was highly recruited out of high school before an injury limited his recruitment, came in as a 6-3, 235-pound receiver with little fanfare last year and grayshirted. He made four catches in the spring scrimmage and showed some decent breakaway speed for a man his size.

“Anthony Olsen and Nason Coleman have been doing really well,” Erickson said. “Couple of young, athletic guys. Both are going to be awesome.”

Redshirt sophomore Kyle Hester, an Arizonan who transferred from New Mexico, was also listed as a tight end on BYU’s spring roster. Former three-star recruit Carter Wheat took a medical retirement.

Two tight ends who signed with BYU out of high school last December — Saimone Davis and Matthew Fredrick — are going on church missions before enrolling.

Erickson said Clark doesn’t put out an official tight end/fullback two deep after spring ball, or “sit us down and tell us where we are at,” but the product of Hawaii’s Kahuku High School said he considers himself to be Rex’s primary backup right now.

“I am more route (runner) first, blocker second. Isaac is more block first, run route second. And so depending on what type of system we are in, is our spot,” Erickson said. “I am hoping to get to a point to where I can block as well as Isaac.”

Bowers is said to be adept at both. The 6-5, 225-pounder reportedly had offers from schools such as Baylor, Texas, Alabama, Washington, Oregon and USC before choosing BYU.

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“I am really excited to see what the group as a whole can do,” Erickson said.

After the season in which he played, remarkably, in all 13 games and caught 22 passes for 320 yards and six touchdowns, the 6-6, 255-pound Rex underwent more surgery to clean up some scar tissue and bone spurs from the first surgery that occurred after the 2021 season and forced him to postpone his wedding.

He didn’t talk much during spring camp, but Roderick said in March that Rex would be good to go in August, and perhaps better than ever.

“Yeah, man, that guy, he is amazing. He just plays all the time. He has been through so much, and he is always available to play. He had the metal removed from his leg, the plates and screws and all that stuff taken out, and he was back on his feet a week later,” Roderick said. “And he looks better than he did at any point last year.”

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