Provo • It has become a ritual of preseason training camp for BYU.
We are going to throw the football to the tight ends more, they say, and return the position to its glory years when the likes of Dennis Pitta, Jonny Harline, Chad Lewis, Chris Smith, David Mills, Clay Brown and Gordon Hudson shined in Provo.
However, not counting what hybrid receiver/tight end Terenn Houk did in 2015, a BYU tight end has not caught more than 30 passes in a season since Kaneakua Friel snagged 30 in 2012.
We know, you’ve heard it before. But this year it appears offensive coordinator Ty Detmer has the personnel in place, and the mindset ready, to deliver on that promise.
“With the skill sets of the guys who are there now, we feel like we will be able to do more than we did last year,” Detmer said.
That shouldn’t be too difficult, considering the tight ends — Tanner Balderree, Hunter Marshall and Nate Sampson — combined for 21 catches and 234 yards in 2016.
Tight Ends in BYU Camp<br>• Moroni Laulu-Pututau: Junior, 6-4/236; Played receiver last season, caught 27 passes for 277 yards, two touchdowns.<br>• Tanner Balderree: Senior, 6-3/250; Battling knee soreness in camp, caught 13 passes for 156 yards, two touchdowns last year.<br>• Matt Bushman: Freshman, 6-5/230; Returned from mission in Sept., shined in spring camp, then played baseball for WCC champs.<br>• Hunter Marshall: Junior, 6-3/230; Missed spring camp after shoulder surgery, still trying to regain 2016 form.<br>• Bentley Hanshaw: Freshman, 6-5/225: Highly recruited son of former BYU and NFL offensive lineman Tim Hanshaw.<br>• JJ Nwigwe: Junior,6-5/275; Still meeting and practicing with offensive linemen, but getting some TE reps in practice.
Balderree and Marshall are back for their senior and junior seasons, respectively, but both missed spring camp after knee and shoulder surgeries and will likely give way to a familiar face and a highly promising newcomer.
Junior Moroni Laulu-Pututau has moved to tight end from receiver, where he caught 27 passes for 277 yards last season. And freshman Matt Bushman was the star of spring camp, having returned from a church mission to Chile last fall.
“Moroni and Matt are both running with the [first team],” tight ends coach Steve Clark said. “We have been using a ton of two tight end sets, and they are at the top right now. … They are grading high, and they have been a lot more productive. They are really good players.”
Clark and Detmer are also high on true freshman Bentley Hanshaw, an excellent route runner and pass catcher who needs to add weight to his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and get bigger and stronger and become a better blocker.
“He’s just very physically overmatched right now,” Clark said. “But he’s going to be really good.”
Offensive lineman JJ Nwigwe also is getting some tight end reps in camp, but Clark said the move is for certain situations where they want to bolster the run game.
Detmer recently said Bushman is in the mold of one of his favorite targets from 1989 and 1990, Smith.
“Matt is a really athletic guy who can go down the field and make a play on the ball against smaller safeties,” Detmer said. “Same with Moroni. Those guys are going to be just as valuable in the pass game as the receivers are.”
Quarterback Tanner Mangum said utilizing tight ends more will put more pressure on opposing defenses.
“It has been a good addition for us, adding Matt Bushman, the new guy, and adding Moroni to the rotation,” Mangum said. “Those two are having really good camps. … It is a really solid position for us now and something we want to keep working on, keep capitalizing on.”
Amidst all the hype for Bushman, who has made some sensational catches in camp, Clark cautions that he is still a freshman who is learning the offense.
“But the talent and skills are definitely there,” Clark said.
For his part, Bushman said Monday he is trying to stay even-keeled.
“I’m not thinking about all that at all,” he said. “I’m just trying to execute on each play and trying not to mess up too much.”
Recently married, Laulu-Pututau said he is bigger and stronger since spring, having gotten to 236 pounds, and is 100 percent healthy.
“Honestly, I feel comfortable. That’s is the word I would use to sum up the transition in one word: comfortable,” he said.