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All-America candidate Matt Bushman’s return saves BYU from being totally inexperienced at tight end position in 2020

Cougars have some talented freshmen and sophomores waiting in the wings, but only two — Carter Wheat and Isaac Rex — have caught passes at the college level and a third highly touted prospect, Hank Tuipulotu, is coming off two major knee injuries

BYU tight end Matt Bushman heads up the field after making a catch during the game against Fresno State in Fresno, California, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017.
BYU tight end Matt Bushman heads up the field after making a catch during the game against Fresno State in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017.
BYU Photo

PROVO — Question marks abound when it comes to assessing BYU’s offense in 2020 as the starting quarterback, running back, receiver and a couple offensive line positions are up for grabs after consecutive 7-6 seasons in Provo.

The same can’t be said for the tight end position, however. That was solidified when three-year starter Matt Bushman announced a few days after Christmas that he will be back for his senior season. The ensuing sighs of relief could be heard all the way to the top of Mount Timpanogos, because without Bushman the Cougars would have been woefully inexperienced at the key position in third-year coordinator Jeff Grimes’ offense.

“I don’t even want to think about that,” tight ends coach Steve Clark said before the bowl game, a 38-34 loss to Hawaii in which Bushman caught six passes for 91 yards, when he was asked how his group would fare without the 6-foot-5, 245-pound NFL prospect.

Now the likable Clark won’t have to fret, barring injury.

“As a kid, my dream was to play a professional sport — football, baseball or basketball — my whole life,” Bushman told a group of reporters last week while discussing why he decided to return. “Now that it is becoming more of a reality and that’s within grasp, it just makes it more important for me to take this senior year as more of a job. Like, I will treat it like I am a professional right now. (I will) just get in extra work, learn more in the film room and film study, and just get my body as healthy and as explosive as it can be. I want to be in the best situation possible for myself, but also for this team to succeed.”

Bushman accounted for 18.5% of the Cougars’ receiving yards last season, and his return is made all the more important by the fact the team’s three other leading pass-catchers — Aleva Hifo, Micah Simon and Talon Shumway — have exhausted their eligibility. BYU’s other primary tight end in 2019, Moroni Laulu-Pututau, also graduates after multiple injuries derailed a promising career.

“Matt gets so much attention that he opens things up for other people,” Clark said. “He makes life easier on everybody else.”

Including the coaches.

Having surpassed the 500-yard receiving plateau all three years at BYU, Bushman returns at No. 22 on the school’s career receiving yards list, with 1,719 on 125 catches. With another 688-yard season, like he had in 2019, he will move into the top 10 and become the third most-prolific TE in school history behind Dennis Pitta (2,901) and Gordon Hudson (2,484).

“Being at BYU, we want to be great,” Bushman said. “We don’t want to be average — win a few games, lose games that we should have won. We are determined to do our best to help this team succeed and get this team right. … I think we have what it takes to be a good team next season. We have some tough games ahead of us, but it all depends on how we do this offseason and how determined we are. We are going to do our best to improve and be better than last year.”

The only suspense after spring camp, which begins March 2 and is tentatively scheduled to end March 28, is which young, inexperienced tight end will emerge as Bushman’s backup.

The most likely candidates are the only two guys who caught passes last season, returned missionary Isaac Rex (one catch, 23 yards) and Carter Wheat, who caught one pass for 8 yards as a true freshman but could theoretically surprise coaches and opt for a church mission, as 2018 newcomer Dallin Holker did a year ago. Midway through fall camp last August, freshman returned missionary Hank Tuipulotu was impressing before suffering a second major knee injury; If he’s healthy, he will certainly be in the mix, along with walk-on Nate Heaps, whose career has also been hampered by injuries.

“A lot of talent, but not very much experience,” is how Clark described the tight ends room.

Also back are sophomore returned missionary Alema Pilimai and two players who recently returned from missions, Bentley Hanshaw and Donovan Hanna. There’s talk that the 6-4, 235-pound Pilimai, a standout defender in high school, could be asked to move to defensive end; Hanshaw was among the nine “January mid-year additions” announced by BYU in December, but Hanna was not, despite having returned from his mission last July.

Lane Lunt, a 6-4 junior from Scottsdale, Arizona, who caught three passes for 118 yards and two TDs last season at Butler (Kansas) College, joins the program as a preferred walk-on.

Senior Kyle Griffitts and rising sophomore Masen Wake meet with the tight ends, but are considered fullbacks or H-backs in Grimes’ offense.

“I see a lot of potential,” Bushman said. “Isaac Rex and Carter Wheat are going to be really good, and Hank Tuipulotu is in the training room every single day, rehabbing his knee. He’s determined to be really good. Masen Wake is a big-time blocker, just does his job extremely well. The tight end position is pretty solid moving forward for the next few years.”

Especially next year — thanks to Bushman’s somewhat surprising return.

BYU’s potential tight ends in 2020

• Matt Bushman, Sr., 6-5, 245

• Nate Heaps, Jr., 6-4, 260

• Alema Pilimai, So., 6-4, 235

• Isaac Rex, Fr., 6-6, 240

• Hank Tuipulotu, Fr., 6-3, 240

• Carter Wheat, Fr., 6-4, 230

• Bentley Hanshaw, Fr., 6-6, 220

• Donovan Hanna, Fr., 6-4, 230

* Lane Lunt, Jr., 6-4, 220

• Kyle Griffitts, Sr., 6-3, 236

• Masen Wake, So., 6-1, 250

Note: Griffitts and Wake practice with the tight ends but are considered fullbacks or H-backs