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Finding their niche: Joe Tukuafu and Carter Wheat step up in BYU victory

Filling in for three-year starter James Empey is no small task, but Tukuafu did so admirably in BYU’s 45-14 win over Louisiana Tech.

BYU tight end Carter Wheat, rear, is tackled by Louisiana Tech defensive lineman Mykol Clark (56) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, in Provo, Utah.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool

PROVO — It’s been a while since Joe Tukuafu realized significant contribution on the field of play, but that all changed during BYU’s 45-14 win over Louisiana Tech on Saturday night.

Charged with manning the center position after three-year starter James Empey was deemed inactive due to injury, the East High product stepped up in a big way with the Cougar offense not missing a beat.

“I’m real happy for Joe,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “... We felt really good about Joe’s preparation throughout the week, and he played a great game. So I’m really proud of him and it’s been a long time (for him).”

BYU center Joe Tukuafu prepares to snap the ball to quarterback Zach Wilson during the Cougars’ game against Louisiana Tech at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.
BYU photo

Indeed it has been a long time for the former tight end recruit who signed with Utah State clear back in 2014 before embarking on a two-year church mission to Argentina. Upon his return, Tukuafu elected to transfer to BYU, where he initially struggled with injury in finding a role at the tight end position.

But after making the switch to offensive line, Tukuafu appears to have finally found where he can contribute most, and did so in Saturday’s win.

“He got in there and balled out, and he was having fun at the same time,” said BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. “There was never a time where he seemed timid out there. He seemed confident the whole game and I’m proud with how he played.”

On several occasions Tukuafu was seen moving effectively downfield to lead block on screen passes, rushes and quarterback keepers, showing off the athleticism you’d expect from a converted tight end.

“He had great snaps all game and was making some great blocks and some great calls,” Wilson said. “So I’m just proud of him and how he played.”

Wheat takes his turn

Last week during BYU’s 48-7 win over Troy it was tight end Isaac Rex taking the lead at the position to make plays and score a touchdown while aiding in opening up the offense for the wideouts. During Saturday’s 45-14 win over Louisiana Tech, it was Carter Wheat’s turn.

The 6-foot-4, 236 pound freshman contributed early in helping jumpstart the BYU offense, finishing with two receptions for 30 yards, which included a leaping 22-yard touchdown catch for the Cougars’ second touchdown of the evening.

“We have ballers all over the place,” Wilson said. “You can’t zone in on one guy because we have tons of guys who can make plays. Carter showed that tonight. He can catch, he can run over guys, and I’m glad he got a touchdown tonight. He ran a great route.”

He also helped open things up on the outside, which was readily noticed and appreciated by BYU receiver Gunner Romney, who finished with seven receptions for 101 yards. Drawing attention to the tight end spot was very much in question after Matt Bushman went down with injury prior to the season, although both Rex and Wheat have filled in admirably.

“They’ve done such an amazing job of stepping in with Matt (Bushman) being gone,” Romney said. “Matt was a huge part of this offense, but it’s huge for us as outside receivers because defenses can’t really key on anyone.”