Provo • Kaneakua Friel might be the only BYU football player who has told coach Bronco Mendenhall to take a hike and not only lived to tell about it, but flourished in the role that Mendenhall suggested he vacate.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” said the junior tight end from Kaneohe, Hawaii. “I was so injury-prone that there were times when I would go to practice thinking, ‘I just don’t want to hurt anything else.’ And now I’m catching touchdown passes. It’s kind of unbelievable.”
Most of all, it is a tale of perseverance.
Friel, a name known only to the most die-hard BYU fans before 2012, started preseason camp in August so far down the depth chart at tight end that he’s not even sure if he was sixth- or seventh-string. Now he has twice as many touchdown catches, four, as anyone else on the team and the second-most receptions, 15 for 195 yards.
“I don’t know that anybody expected him to do this well,” said BYU tight ends coach Lance Reynolds. “He has played really well.”
Not bad for a guy who was asked to switch from tight end to linebacker in the spring of 2011 after he had returned from a two-year church mission to Durban, South Africa, because of the glut of tight ends in the program.
“I was trying to make him a defensive player, and he basically told me to take a hike,” Mendenhall said on his radio show last week.
Friel says he was disappointed when Mendenhall made the suggestion, but not deterred from his dream of being an offensive contributor for BYU, a dream hatched during his days at Hawaii’s Kamehameha High, where he caught fewer touchdown passes than he has for the Cougars.
“Really, coach’s request didn’t sit well with me. Like, right away I was offended,” he said. “I went home and thought about it, and it still didn’t sit well with me. I declined his offer, although my chances of making the three-deep on defense were probably better. I believed I was a good offensive player, and that I could make plays.”
Still, Friel’s return to full strength after his mission was slowed by various injuries. He says he pulled a hamstring four times in his first six months back. He also suffered a hand injury. Buried on the depth chart, he wondered many times if it was worth it.
But when Devin Mahina, Austin Holt and Richard Wilson were all injured during various stages of the season last year, Friel finally got his chance. He caught a touchdown pass against Oregon State and had multiple-catch games against New Mexico State and Hawaii.
When camp opened, Marcus Mathews was ticketed as the probable starter at tight end, splitting time with Holt with the first-team offense. And that’s how it looked the first few weeks of August. But toward the end of camp, Mathews was moved to receiver because of a lack of depth at that position, and coaches seemed to believe that neither Holt nor Wilson were completely healthy after undergoing major knee surgery. Mahina broke his hand early in camp.
So, despite Holt and Wilson saying they were back to full strength, Friel became the man at perhaps the most storied offensive position at BYU other than quarterback.
“It was definitely a surprise to me,” Friel said. “Deep inside myself, I always knew I was a good athlete, and a competitor, and that I could make plays. But I think I had to be able to show that to the coaches. That’s something I haven’t been able to do in the past, is consistently show that I can make plays. I think that’s what I have tried to do, throughout this offseason and fall camp, is be consistent, play in and play out.”
Reynolds said Friel won the job because of his consistency and ability to make plays. He earned a degree of trust with his play at the end of the 2011 season.
“First of all, he’s a really big kid, tall and long and way athletic, and can run. He’s kind of slippery. He can slide through things and not get banged and hit. So he’s a real athletic, kind of fluid, slippery guy,” Reynolds said. “You could see that last year before the season started. But he had some injury problems. We couldn’t get him through camp last year. Then all the other guys got hurt, and he stepped up and made plays.”
Said Friel: “I just stuck with it, and now it is paying off.”
2007 • Redshirted and played on the scout team
2008 • Saw action in eight games, was used primarily as a blocking fullback
2009-10 • LDS Church mission to South Africa
2011 • Was asked to switch to linebacker before spring camp, but declined and eventually saw action at tight end when three tight ends in front of him suffered injuries
2012 • Began camp buried on the depth chart, but earned starting position and now leads team with four touchdown catches