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Why TD production by BYU’s Isaac Rex is significant for Cougar play calls

The Cougar freshman tight end’s scoring production is elite in BYU’s long line of success at that position.

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BYU Cougars tight end Isaac Rex (83) catches the a touchdown pass during a game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo in 2020.

BYU tight end Isaac Rex catches the ball against Western Kentucky Hilltoppers defensive back Beanie Bishop for a touchdown during a game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Zach Wilson’s deployment of tight end production returns BYU’s offense to its storied roots.

If you try to list all the great ones, it’s tough because you’re sure to miss somebody. But hunt through the time periods from the days of Doug Scovil, Mike Holmgren, Ted Tollner and Norm Chow to Lance Reynolds and Robert Anae and you find BYU’s tight end position producing sometimes eight or 12 catches a game. 

Like a lifeline.

Just pick a few names if you don’t want to open the entire catalog of BYU tight ends.

Remember how Jonny Harline high pointed the ball in his last game against Utah when covered by All-American safety Eric Weddle, then ultimately caught the game-winner on what seemed an eternity play with John Beck? How about the work of Andrew George in BYU’s last win over the Utes in overtime? Remember Clay Brown’s Hail Mary from Jim McMahon in the win over SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl? Flash to Dennis Pitta’s All-America connection with Max Hall. Remember Ty Detmer consistently finding tight end Chris Smith to set an NCAA record for yards by a tight end?

How about that tandem of Chad Lewis and Itula Mili, both of whom went on to become NFL veterans?

Then narrow into the past two games when freshman Isaac Rex caught four touchdown passes.

Those four TDs gave Rex eight for the year, surpassing his father Byron’s career touchdown production (7).

But that’s not all. Those eight touchdowns surpassed the scoring production of wide receiver sensation Dax Milne, who has had a phenomenal year with six.

And consider, before his Achilles tendon injury in August, which wiped out his expectant senior season, BYU’s top receiver for two years Matt Bushman had four touchdown passes in 2019, two in 2018 and 9 for his entire career.

If rookie Rex catches just two more TD passes this season, he’ll surpass Bushman’s career scoring.

To further highlight this Rex touchdown category, All-America Pitta’s best TD season was in 2009 when he caught eight touchdown passes.

Gordon Hudson, who had an almost magnetic connection with Steve Young in 1981, caught 10 touchdown passes his best year.

One of the biggest yard gobblers for NCAA record busting Heisman Trophy winner Detmer in 1990 was Smith, a consensus All-American in college and nationally ranked track relay star in high school. Detmer hit Smith for a whopping 1,156 yards in 1990, many of them on the 69 H Option, a bootleg play, where Smith came across the middle behind the linebackers. He averaged 17 yards a catch. But that year, Smith had just two touchdown passes, just 25% of what Rex has done in nine games this season.

For his career, Smith caught nine touchdown passes in a BYU uniform.

That Wilson is using Rex at the goal line is a very big deal for BYU’s offense, especially when the Cougars have Milne, Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u as choices. Plus, Wilson has scored eight touchdowns running and 26 TDs on throws.

And, yes, it is understood that BYU’s schedule is enhancing this historical milestone for everyone on BYU’s offense. But it is a fact that Jeff Grimes and Aaron Roderick have found a way to fit Rex into the mix and it’s been Midas gold.

Smith had nine career touchdown catches. Pitta had an impressive 21 in his long and storied career, terrorizing the Mountain West defenses. For his career, Rex is 38% to Pitta’s total in nine games.  

Think about that.

A lot of this is chemistry and the accuracy of Wilson in making high point throws to a 6-foot-6 target in small spaces near the goal line. It’s a quandary for defenses that are worried about Milne, Romney, Pau’u and running back Tyler Allgeier, but must commit a spy to Wilson. It’s a perfect combination to throw at a defense.

Does this get tougher to pull off if Wilson leaves for the NFL after this season?

Of course. This COVID-19 season has provided unique matchups for BYU they’d ordinarily not get, especially in September when facing three to four P5 defenses.

But now it’s started and polished and Rex will be joined by Dallin Holker, now finishing missionary service. It’s a matter of developing chemistry and accuracy with Rex and Baylor Romney, Jaren Hall or freshmen Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters and Jacob Conover — not necessarily in that order — who will replace Wilson.

It is a big deal in BYU’s traditional offense to have a productive, feared and respected tight end that you can game plan for and defenses must scheme to defend.

Now BYU is using Rex as a flex weapon, moving him out as a wide receiver in some formations, forcing a corner instead of a linebacker or safety to defend him.

In many ways, it changes everything for Grimes as a play caller and Roderick as a pass-game schemer.