Ever since he roared onto the scene midway through the 2020 college football season with 11 touchdown catches in his final seven games, BYU tight end Isaac Rex has been a man in search of a nickname.
Monikers such as “The Elk” and “T-Rex” and “Big Rex” and “Byron’s Boy” — more on that later — have been bandied about, and they are all fine with him, but if he had his druthers he would just as soon be called by the name his parents gave him.
“I am not really out there looking for attention,” the 6-foot-6 sophomore from San Clemente, California, told the Deseret News recently. “I don’t want to take myself too seriously.”
So call him what you will. But know this: When Rex’s days at BYU are finished, he might be called one of the best tight ends to ever play for the school. And that’s saying something, considering BYU has produced the likes of Gordon Hudson, Chris Smith, Itula Mili, Chad Lewis, Jonny Harline, Trevor Molini, Dennis Pitta and, most recently, Matt Bushman.
The son of another former outstanding BYU tight end, Bryon Rex, had one of the most prolific freshman seasons in school history last year, finishing with 12 touchdown catches — tied for fifth in BYU history — and 37 catches for 429 yards.
As self-deprecating as they come in Provo, Isaac Rex says he never saw the success coming. That was especially true because at this time last year — after a truncated spring camp had wrapped up — he was just hoping to see the field occasionally as Bushman’s primary backup. And coaches had proclaimed that Bushman would be the focus of the offense if he returned for his senior season.
“I was expecting more of a supporting role, with Matt as the prominent guy,” Rex said.
Of course, everything changed the week before the Cougars were to take on Navy in the opener, because Bushman sustained a season-ending Achilles injury and the starting job was Rex’s. He ran with it.
“I was seriously forced into a position where they said, ‘Hey, you gotta be that guy now, you and Masen (Wake). I felt like we both stepped up pretty well.” Rex said. “Even then, I really didn’t see 12 touchdown catches happening, but as I was preparing for the season, I knew that when we were in the red zone the ball had a good chance coming to me, so I just was kind of preparing for that.”
The Cougars are scheduled to conclude 2021 spring camp on Friday with a public practice/scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium, then will hunker down before the Sept. 4 opener against Arizona in Las Vegas and try to find a starting quarterback to replace the great Zach Wilson.
They already know that QB will have several outstanding targets, including Rex and receivers Neil Pau’u and Gunner Romney.
“Isaac is multi-faceted,” said BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark. “He can do a lot of things well, and he is big, has got great hands and can run and block. He has the ability to do all the things that you ask a tight end to do.”
Born to play football
One could say that Isaac Rex was born to play tight end for BYU, seeing as how Byron Rex caught 87 passes for 1,209 yards and seven touchdowns for the Cougars from 1990-92 and is 47th on the school’s career receiving yards list.
But while growing up in El Dorado Hills, California, and then Atlanta, and then San Clemente, Isaac Rex wanted to be a quarterback.
“I wanted to be a Zach Wilson kinda guy, a quarterback,” he said. “But we ran the triple option in peewee football and I wasn’t that fast, so they moved me to center.”
He got a growth spurt in high school — he was just 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds as a freshman — and was moved to tight end midway through high school.
“I was actually a late-bloomer,” he said.
Byron Rex works for a pharmaceutical company, and moved his young family around for a few years before settling in Southern California. In Northern California, they were best friends and neighbors with former BYU receiver Scott Collie’s family, and Isaac remembers backyard games with Austin and Dylan Collie in his early years.
“Ever since I was born, football has been a huge part of my life,” he said. “My family has been super involved, my dad mostly, but my mom (Amy) has gotten more involved and also gotten into it, too.”
Isaac Rex wasn’t heavily recruited out of San Clemente High, mostly due to injuries that limited his numbers. A hamstring injury cut short his junior season as his team played in the CIF championship game. His senior year, he got hit in the leg and his femur was chipped, causing him to miss more games, but he returned in time for the playoffs and helped San Clemente defeat Del Oro High in the state championship game.
“We had (USC and Boise State quarterback) Jack Sears and a lot of good guys, so it was a great team,” Rex said.
One of the standouts Rex’s junior year was current University of Utah tight end Cole Fotheringham, and the two tight ends remain good friends although they play for rival schools.
“I love Cole,” Rex said. “He is like my brother. … We talk a lot.”
The Utes and Cougars are scheduled to meet Sept. 11 in Provo, and the trash-talking will flow, Rex said.
Hanging with Zach Wilson
In February 2016, new BYU coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer extended one of their first scholarship offers to Rex, and he committed a month later. It was hailed as a big get for the Cougars because schools such as USC, UCLA, Utah and Arizona State were also interested in the two-way star — he also played linebacker — but Rex had decided BYU would be his destination long before that.
“Since preschool, I have dreamed of playing for BYU,” he posted on Twitter on March 19, 2016, in announcing his commitment.
“I never thought he would be as good as he is now,” said Clark, who was part of Rex’s recruitment. “I thought he might turn into an offensive lineman, and we talked about that as a staff at the time. … Obviously now he is never going to be an offensive lineman with the skills at tight end that he has.”
Rex signed in February 2017, then departed on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Samoa.
He redshirted in 2019, playing in three games and catching one pass, for 23 yards.
Wilson’s 10-hour drives to Southern California last spring and summer have been well-documented. Less known is that many times Wilson stayed with Rex’s family in San Clemente, and the QB and tight end worked out together a lot, threw passes to each other almost every day, and developed a close bond and chemistry that would pay dividends in 2020.
“I learned a lot from him,” Rex said. “Zach is really driven and he wants to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. The goals he sets and his willingness to work hard every day is really cool. He really cares and he wants to be great.”
Rex said when Wilson wasn’t working with former BYU QB John Beck’s 3DQB outfit, or doing DoorDash in Orange County, California, to earn money so he wouldn’t be a burden to the Rex family, “he would watch film constantly or go throw in the mornings, all that.”
“With Zach, it is football all the time, and we were always talking about it,” Rex said. “It helped us gain a really good connection last year.”
Those silly love songs
For all his success in 2020, Rex didn’t get off to a blazing start. He caught just five passes his first four games, with one touchdown — against Troy. In the fifth game, against Houston, he caught two passes for 55 yards, then followed that with a monster game against Texas State: five catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns.
Cougar Convos with Isaac Rex pic.twitter.com/k7hMw5dpVa— BYU FOOTBALL (@BYUfootball) February 27, 2021
Two months later, Rex was a freshman All-American and some were saying he might be thinking about declaring for the NFL draft. He says he wasn’t.
“I knew I had to come back another year and get stronger and prove myself again,” he said. “I am really motivated to have a really good year this year and work hard. Pro football will be there when I’m ready. The NFL is not going anywhere, so I just need to get as ready as possible to fulfill those dreams of mine.”
Due to some entertaining news conferences with reporters on Zoom and a video posted by BYU football staffer Jack Damuni of he and Rex belting out tunes in a car, Rex is starting to become one of the most recognizable and colorful personalities on the team.
That’s not a role he likes, but he’s happy to “go with the flow” if it makes those around him happy, he said. He recognizes his dad had a “big personality” at BYU and his mom “is kinda fiery and has a pretty good personality” as well.
“I know I am not a big hotshot guy,” he said. “I don’t want people to think I think I am too cool. I am just a BYU student, football player, son and boyfriend, honestly. … I want people to feel comfortable around me. I want people to open up and have fun with me, not like try to be all serious all the time. That’s basically it.”
Yes, Rex has a serious girlfriend, former Utah Valley University volleyball star Alexis Davies, a Murray High product who is 6-foot-2 and was once an All-WAC outside hitter.
“If it works out we will have some nice, tall BYU children,” Rex said.
It’s that kind of subtle humor that Clark, the tight ends coach, enjoys whenever Rex is around.
“He is actually a quiet, almost shy kind of guy,” Clark said. “He doesn’t say a lot. He is hilarious, though, and he can be very funny and very personable. … He says these dry wit, off-the-cuff things that just kind of come out of nowhere. He kinda cuts you. He will get you when you are least expecting it. He will have a good quip to say and everybody laughs.”
Just don’t take anything Isaac Rex says seriously — especially if it is about himself.