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‘It just felt right’: BYU’s Matt Bushman, Khyiris Tonga explain why they put off NFL pursuits one more year

After much deliberation and prayer, and many discussions with friends, coaches and family members, both players decided to play out their senior seasons before declaring for NFL draft

Brigham Young University tight end Matt Bushman (89) runs after a catch against the Washington Huskies in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — Tight end Matt Bushman made the decision a few days before the Hawaii Bowl to stay at BYU for his senior season, while defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga was almost certain he was going to leave until a few days after the Cougars’ 38-34 loss to the Rainbow Warriors in Honolulu.

Some long talks with his parents, particularly his father, changed Tonga’s mind.

Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga celebrates a first down in the closing minutes against the Boise State Broncos during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Whatever the case, both star players said Friday when they met with reporters to discuss their decisions to wait another year to enter the NFL draft that they are comfortable with their choices.

“It was more about, at the end of the day, just going with my heart, trusting my gut and trusting that Heavenly Father has a bigger plan for me,” said Bushman, who caught 47 passes for a team-high 688 yards and four touchdowns last season.

“I wanted to go, even though I wasn’t getting much (positive feedback from the NFL), but after talking to my parents, it just felt right to come back and finish off my career here,” said Tonga, who recorded 45 tackles, including four for losses, and a sack. The 6-foot-4, 321-pound Granger High product also batted down two passes.

Bushman announced he was returning on Dec. 27, three days after the loss he called “frustrating” and described as “ending on the wrong note,” but noted it wasn’t a factor in his decision because he knew before catching six passes for 91 yards against Hawaii that he wasn’t finished at BYU.

“Now it is just more about being motivated and focused and getting right,” he said. “Hopefully Khyiris and myself and the other leaders can rally up the team so we can be prepared for Sept. 3 to play Utah.”

Bushman, 6-5, 245, said there “wasn’t like one huge, big reason” why he chose to stay. He said there were times when he and his wife Emily, a former BYU volleyball player and the daughter of former BYU tight end great Chad Lewis, were thinking they would leave. Other days, they were all about staying.

“It was really back and forth,” Bushman said. “But after meeting with coaches and praying about it, that just solidified more of the assurance that, OK, if I stay and definitely improve on some things, hopefully, and first of all help our team have a better season, … I can get stronger this offseason and kind of increase my stock for next year’s draft as well.”

Bushman, who has posted 500-plus receiving yards all three of his seasons at BYU, called the feedback he received from the NFL’s scouting service “vague” and based on too many variables, such as how he might test at the NFL combine in February, or BYU’s pro day on March 27.

“Like, I wouldn’t want to leave and get picked in the later rounds, or go undrafted,” he said. “So I think it was smart for me to stay, kinda better myself, and … hopefully solidify the future and also just have a better BYU season.”

Bushman called the Cougars’ second straight 7-6 season “mediocre” and unsatisfying. He said he’s already talked with offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick about how the offense can improve in 2020 and be more focused on adjusting to the players’ strengths rather than having the players adjust to the offensive system.

“I just think if we can play to our strengths, we can be a lot better,” he said.

As for Tonga, who is also a returned missionary and a couple years older than the typical rising senior, he said he was “fighting it hard, man” when his father continually brought up reasons to stay because he was set on leaving.

He announced via Twitter on New Year’s Eve that he’d be back.

“My dad would tell me what was right, and finally I just listened,” he said.

Tonga said he’s getting close to a degree in communications, in the sports media track — “I’m trying to be like ya’ll,” he told reporters — and is “super excited” to rebound from the two late-season losses that marred an otherwise decent season.

“It is a new year, a new schedule,” he said. “We see who is on the schedule and everyone is just super happy to be here. Everyone is competing to play. So that’s the best part.”

2019 stats for returning BYU football stars

• Tight end Matt Bushman: 47 catches, 688 yards, 4 TDs

• Defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga: 45 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU