Provo • On successive plays Friday night at BYU’s preseason training camp, freshman quarterback Zach Wilson lofted passes to tight ends Matt Bushman and Moroni Laulu-Pututau, the latter reaching high to snare the football over the outstretched arms of an overmatched defender.
The Cougars could have used that kind of one-two punch at one of their marquee positions last year, but the 6-foot-5 Laulu-Pututau — known as MLP to teammates, coaches and media members who have trouble pronouncing his full name — missed the entire season with a Lisfranc foot injury.
Then-offensive coordinator Ty Detmer didn’t like to use excuses for his abysmal offense in 2017, but in one moment of weakness the former Heisman Trophy winner wondered aloud what might have been if Laulu-Pututau hadn’t injured his foot three days before the opener against Portland State.
“Having them both on the field was a big part of what we were trying to do,” Detmer said.
New offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes has inherited that luxury, and it is already evident through a couple days of camp that he plans to get all he can out of the freshman All-American Bushman and the uber-talented Laulu-Pututau, who played receiver his first two seasons before moving to tight end. He caught 27 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns in 2016.
“Yeah, I was going to be a big part of the offense last year,” Laulu-Pututau said Friday. “You can always speculate, but I think I would have been a big part of it, based on the stuff we worked on in fall camp. When any player goes down, it hurts the offense, especially a pro style offense that runs through the tight ends.”
Last summer was glorious for the former Mountain Crest High product. He got married and ate pretty much anything he wanted in an attempt to gain weight to play tight end, going from 210 pounds to 245.
That all changed on Aug. 23, three days before the opener, when he felt a pop in his left foot while running a routine non-contact passing route. At first he thought the pain he felt iwas a cramp in his foot, or a defect in his cleats.
“There was sharp pain, but I thought it was temporary,” he said. “Turns out, it was way worse than anyone imagined.”
It was the curse of the Lisfranc fracture, a mid-foot injury that really isn’t a fracture. One or more of the metatarsal bones in the foot is displaced from the tarsus, so it is more like a ligament tear than a break.
“I just know it hurts, and it is serious,” said the construction management major who knows all about the dangers of putting too much load on a structure not equipped to handle it.
And it severely hurt the offense, which couldn’t even move the ball across the 50-yard-line in the second game, against LSU.
“We missed him a lot,” said head coach Kalani Sitake. “But he is doing great in this camp. Having Moroni and Matt Bushman out there together has been great. … Moroni is a guy that has gotten tons of reps for us and done some great things and the injury was unfortunate. We just hope he stays healthy and we can use him for the first game.”
Laulu-Pututau said he couldn’t have made the return without the support of his wife Kiralyn and the help of BYU’s trainers and medical staff.
“You think about a lot of things when you get injured,” he said. “But I have always known that I wanted to do this, and pursue a [professional] football career, so I kept at it. My wife has been a big help. It helps a lot to have someone to go home to who understands what it has been like. She keeps my mind on track and keeps me motivated.”
Laulu-Pututau said he has been fully cleared by the medical staff and has done everything so far in camp, but is still being “cautious and smart” after what happened last year.
“I can’t tell you how great it feels just to be out here,” he said. “I’m back to being myself and doing what I have been doing most of my life. It just feels awesome.”
Watching from the sidelines has given Laulu-Pututau plenty of time to think about that awful day.
“It was a mixture of everything — putting on the additional weight, maybe wearing the wrong cleats. Who knows?” he said. “You could point to a lot of things, but this year we have maintained my weight — about 240 — and I am going to stay there and not gain more weight. I have had a full year to stay at the same weight, so I feel a lot better about that.”
For MLP, the more pressing matter is learning Grimes’ new offense.
“He will be the third offensive coordinator I will play for,” Laulu-Pututau said. “But I feel like we’re ahead of schedule. We’re going to make amends for last year and rebuild the program to what it should be.”
ABOUT BYU’s MORONI LAULU-PUTUTAU
2015 • Played in 11 games, caught six passes for 112 yards and one touchdown
2016 • Played in all 13 games, caught 27 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns
2017 • Switched to tight end in offseason, but missed entire season with Lisfranc foot injury