There is crying in football — a lot of it, in some cases.
BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark knows that all too well, after watching the scene that unfolded at the school’s practice facility the last day of August, the 35th Monday of this excruciatingly difficult year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it had nothing to do with a pesky virus not expected to depart any time soon, and everything to do with a gut-hammering, season-ending injury sustained by tight end Matt Bushman in what was supposed to be the new father’s final season in Provo before an expected long and successful NFL career.
“When it happened I brought the guys over and I had eight guys just sobbing.” — BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark after senior Matt Bushman sustained a season-ending Achilles rupture
It was exactly a week before the Cougars’ hastily added season opener at Navy, and 10 days before Bushman and his wife Emily would welcome firstborn Andie, a daughter, into the world. The Cougars’ best player suffered a ruptured Achilles’ tendon on the second-to-last play of practice that night.
“When it happened I brought the guys over and I had eight guys just sobbing,” Clark said.
When the tears subsided — it took “days and days” to get over the initial heartache, Clark noted — BYU’s offensive coaches huddled to devise a plan to replace the All-America candidate for which much of the offense had been built around in the offseason.
The remaining tight ends gathered, too, and decided to dedicate the season to Bushman. Mostly young players such as freshmen Isaac Rex and Carter Wheat, sophomores Masen Wake (also a fullback) and Hank Tuipulotu and junior college transfer Lane Lunt vowed to collectively make up for the loss of Bushman, who caught 47 passes for 688 yards and four touchdowns last season.
“You can see his number on their arms and all the stupid TikTok stuff they do,” Clark said. “They are playing for something more than themselves right now.”
And they are doing it well. Nobody has forgotten about Bushman, one of the top tight ends in BYU history, but Rex especially has risen to the occasion. The redshirt freshman from San Clemente, California, has 12 catches for 175 yards and three touchdowns, including two last week against Texas State, heading into Saturday’s 8:15 p.m. MDT clash with Western Kentucky at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“He’s a big target, really easy to throw to,” offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said of Rex, son of former Cougar star Byron Rex. “He was one of our players of the game (vs. Texas State). For a guy his size, he has tremendous hands. Going into the season, even before the injury to Matt, we really felt like he would be a guy who would jump onto the scene this year. It was good to see him make some big catches.”
Clark said Rex’s experience — he appeared in three games last year after a mission in Samoa for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — gave him the edge over the seven other tight ends/fullbacks in his room for the most playing time, and Rex has delivered after getting the start in the Hawaii Bowl last December.
“We are kinda doing it tight end-by-committee, fullback-by-committee,” Clark said. “They all have their roles, and it just depends on which plays coach Grimes and coach (Aaron Roderick) call. … Right now, Isaac probably has the most plays of the tight ends, but I wouldn’t say he has the majority of them.”
Wheat, also the son of a legacy BYU player (offensive tackle Warren Wheat), has started in four games and made three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. Hank Tuipulotu, yet another tight end whose father starred for the Cougars, made his long-awaited debut last week against the Bobcats and caught a pass for 20 yards.
The son of Peter Tuipulotu, a former BYU running back, Hank Tuipulotu suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in fall camp of 2018, then tore the ACL in the same knee again in 2019 before the season started.
“Hank brings some explosiveness to the group, but I am still worried about his health,” Clark said. “Every time I see him fall down and stumble, my heart goes through my throat, just because I am worried about him. I can’t go through another ACL (injury) with Hank.”
Other tight ends on the roster include freshman Bentley Hanshaw and Ben Tuipulotu, Hank’s brother.
Clark, who said over the summer that Bushman would never leave the field this season unless he wanted to, noted that some adjustments had to be made when Bushman went down, but not as many as originally thought.
“We cut some things out that we had put in just for Matt,” Clark said. “And I will be honest with you, Matt was playing better by far than at any time we have had him here. We had some packages in for him. We had option packages in for him. He was doing a lot more read routes, choice routes, option routes, things like that that we didn’t feel as comfortable letting these young guys do as much.”
Bushman hasn’t said yet whether or not he will return in 2021, or enter April’s NFL draft. Because he served a mission, he’s two years older than the average college graduate.
Another pleasant surprise has been the emergence of Masen Wake, the 250-pound battering ram from Lone Peak High who has also shown the propensity to leap over defenders who dive at his feet for fear of getting steamrolled.
Wake had eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown; another fullback who works with the tight ends, senior Kyle Griffits, has one catch for 29 yards.
“The thing about Masen that I don’t think people realize is his football intelligence is as good as any player I have been around,” Clark said. “I can tell him one thing one time and he gets it and understands why we are doing it that way. And he has got great hands. I mean, he’s a good athlete. He just weighs 250 pounds. So, he can block, he can catch, he can run people over, he can jump over them. It has been fun to use him and he has responded well.”
The same can be said of the entire group — once the tears were wiped away.