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Loss of Matt Bushman causes BYU to pivot on offense, search for other playmakers days before opener at Navy

Redshirt freshman Isaac Rex, fullback Masen Wake among those who will be looked upon to fill the All-America candidate’s shoes for scrambling Cougars

BYU tight end Isaac Rex catches a pass during practice on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes says tight end Matt Bushman is irreplaceable, but the Cougars will do their best with freshmen such as Rex and Masen Wake. Bushman sustained a season-ending lower leg injury on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.
Photo courtesy BYU

PROVO — What now?

After absorbing the shock of seeing their best player go down with a season-ending Achilles injury during practice last Monday, BYU’s offensive coaches huddled together that night and began preparing for a football season without tight end Matt Bushman.

Reiterating what tight ends coach Steve Clark told the Deseret News last May, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Thursday that Bushman was “going to be a big part of our offense.”

The Cougars open the season Monday at Navy in a game to be televised nationally by ESPN.

Grimes paused before telling reporters who would try to fill in for the All-America candidate and offered a short tribute to the senior from Tucson, Arizona. It is unclear yet whether Bushman will attempt to return to BYU when his injury heals, or move on to the NFL.

“I am hurt for the kid. I really am,” Grimes said. “I have been coaching for 28 years, and maybe only a time or two do I remember an injury that saddened me as much as this one did.”

Grimes said Bushman was a good player who made himself great by working hard and trusting the coaching staff the past couple of years.

“He has developed as a leader, as a complete player,” Grimes said. “I have no question that he was in position to have a tremendous senior year, so we will miss him, we really will. We will miss his leadership and his play on the field.”

As expected, redshirt freshman Isaac Rex will move up the depth chart to the starting tight end. Sophomore Masen Wake, who was primarily used as a fullback last year, will join Rex in getting “the lion’s share” of the playing time at tight end, Grimes said.

Rex, the son of former BYU great Byron Rex, caught one pass for 23 yards last season.

Wake, a 250-pound bulldozer from Lone Peak High, played in 12 games in 2019 but did not have a reception.

That’s a far cry from the 125 catches for 1,719 yards and nine touchdowns that Bushman recorded his first three seasons in Provo.

Other tight ends on the roster include sophomore Hank Tuipulotu, freshman Carter Wheat, senior Kyle Griffits and junior Lane Lunt, a transfer from Eastern Arizona College.

“It is not going to be one player just taking Matt’s spot,” Grimes said. “It is going to be a collective group effort to do that. … It certainly effects our game plan, and the first thing is to try to do our best to get the right guys in the right spots.”

After spending much of the past six months designing ways to get Bushman the ball more often after he decided to bypass the NFL draft and return for a final season of eligibility, coaches have to pivot just days before their opener and figure out ways to use an inexperienced group of receivers more, head coach Kalani Sitake said Tuesday on BYUtv.

Juniors Neil Pau’u, Dax Milne and Gunner Romney are at the top of that list, according to the two-deep chart released Monday.

“I wouldn’t use the word pressure, but we are definitely more aware that we need to fill the role that Matt was in,” Milne said. “We are kinda using different guys for different plays that Matt was a key part of. We were already going into (the opener) planning on making plays, but yeah, just another motivation for us.”

BYU wide receiver Dax Milne (5) runs with the ball as defender Hirkley Latu (21) gives chase during practice on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Grimes confirmed Thursday that he will coach from the sidelines during games this season; He began doing that midway through last season with positive results, he said. Passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick and Clark will coach from the press box.

“I think we are about where we should be with the number of days that we have left to prepare,” Grimes said. “Certainly not ready to play tomorrow. But you never really are until you get to the day before the game. … At tight end when you suddenly have young guys that are going to fill a higher void, that is where you want every moment that you can have leading up to the game.”

Milne gave a more glowing report, saying the offense has been “clicking on all levels” the past few weeks of practice. The Cougars will practice in Provo again on Saturday, then fly to Maryland on Sunday.

“I am feeling really good about all of our timing and all the plays that we have,” Milne said. “It has been a process. … I am confident for the game on Monday.”

Even without the most prolific pass-catcher on the team.