When BYU tight end Isaac Rex takes the field Sept. 2 against Sam Houston, his ankle will be 642 days removed from its breaking point during the second quarter at USC on Nov. 29, 2021. It will also be as healthy as it’s been since the moment before the fateful play.

“He has the tenacity to get in the ugly trenches while being good enough to get out in the open field. The best thing about Isaac is his catch radius. He has long arms and really good hands.” — BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark on Isaac Rex

Attempting to catch a pass in the back of the end zone, Rex landed awkwardly and shattered his right ankle. After multiple surgeries and rehab, he returned to the field last fall and played in every game at far less than 100%.

With BYU’s first official practice as a member of the Big 12 on Tuesday, Rex has kept his vow to be ready.

“I think he has improved,” BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark told the “Y’s Guys” podcast. “I don’t think he will ever be 100%. What people don’t know about last year is during the games, he would get a shot, so he didn’t feel a lot of the pain. But it was during the week in practice when he was dragging that ankle around. There were times in practice that he could barely walk, but he was determined to play.”

In a twist of irony, Rex became BYU’s primary target at tight end when All-American Matt Bushman, the Cougars’ top returning receiver from 2019, suffered a season-ending injury on the last day of fall camp before the 2020 kickoff at Navy.

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Rex stepped into his new role with quarterback Zach Wilson and the two made magic together. Rex caught 37 passes for 429 yards and 12 touchdowns — which tied him for the most among tight ends in the country.

In an offense that featured future NFL draft picks Wilson, Tyler Allgeier (RB), Dax Milne (WR), Brady Christensen (OL) and Blake Freeland (OL), in addition to receivers Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney, the 6-foot-6 freshman found his niche and averaged a whopping 23 yards per catch.

“What I see in Isaac is that combination to do both — he has the tenacity to get in the ugly trenches while being good enough to get out in the open field,” Clark said. “The best thing about Isaac is his catch radius. He has long arms and really good hands.”

With Jaren Hall at quarterback in 2021 and 2022, Rex saw his production cut in half. He averaged 10.6 yards per catch in 2021 (18-191, 3 TD) and 14.5 yards per catch in 2022 (22-320, 6 TD).

August offers a fresh start for the junior — even a reboot. He and transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis spent their summer workouts together. Clark would love to see Rex return to his freshman numbers, but he is cautious when it comes to expectations.

“I don’t coach them that way. I coach them to get open,” Clark said. “I don’t want to say he needs to have a certain number of catches. That puts too much pressure on him. My job is to coach them to get open and make the catch. That’s all we can do.”

Behind Rex are senior Mason Wake and sophomore Ethan Erickson, players with valuable game experience. Not far behind is highly touted Jackson Bowers, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound freshman from Mesa, Arizona.

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“I’ve been meeting with Jackson frequently. He is awesome. He’s picked up this offense as good as anybody has,” Clark said. “I have high hopes for him. I don’t want to put any pressure on him this year because he is new. But he knows he has it and that’s half the battle. It’s a big jump to make, even for four- or five-star kids.”

Bowers will be watching and learning from Rex as closely as Clark will be watching Rex’s ankle. What the eight-year tight ends coach already sees is a connection between Rex and Slovis. They need each other. It’s rare in Cougar lore that BYU has been successful without a tight end carrying much of the workload.

“(Kedon and Isaac) have great chemistry. They are locked into each other, but you don’t know until it’s 11 guys out there and Kedon has a rush coming at him,” Clark said. “We will find out what kind of chemistry they have when the bullets are flying and hopefully Isaac can become a security blanket for Kedon. That’s kind of what tight ends do.”

Gifford Nielsen had Brian Billick. Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon had Clay Brown. Steve Young had Gordon Hudson. Robbie Bosco had David Mills. Ty Detmer had Chris Smith and Byron Rex. Steve Sarkisian had Chad Lewis and Itula Mili. John Beck had Jonny Harline. Max Hall had Dennis Pitta. Wilson had Bushman and Rex. 

Now Slovis has a healthy Rex and the toughest schedule in school history ahead of them both as BYU enters the Big 12. How they go will have a lot to say about how well the Cougars move down the field. The quarterback-tight end relationship is the bedrock to BYU’s illustrious history and paramount to the Cougars’ future.

For Rex and his healed-up ankle, the future is now.

BYU Cougars tight end Isaac Rex (83) dives for a touchdown during the game against the Utah Tech Trailblazers at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.
BYU tight end Isaac Rex dives for a touchdown during game against the Utah Tech at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.