Healthy tight ends are in short supply at BYU spring football practices this month. Where have they gone, and what are coaches doing about it?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU tight end Matt Bushman (89) played in this game against Utah with a torn labrum in his shoulder, then had surgery after the bowl game in mid-December. The junior is one of four BYU tight ends sitting out spring practices, but expect to return to action soon.

Provo • Steve Clark likes to say that his golf game, particularly his short game, is really improving at BYU’s spring football practices.

“I’ve been chipping a lot, hitting a few 9-irons,” said BYU’s tight ends coach.

Of course, he’s joking. Clark is actually working really hard this month, trying to get the few healthy tight ends who are participating — most of them fairly inexperienced — up to speed.

With top returning tight ends Matt Bushman, Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Nate Heaps and Hank Tuipulotu all recovering from offseason surgeries, Clark’s group is as small as it has ever been — hence, the golfing jokes when he’s asked what he’s been doing.

Converted offensive lineman Addison Pulsipher and walk-ons Tanner Leishman and Brayden Keim — son of former BYU standout Mike Keim — are his only pupils if you don’t count a couple fullbacks who play the hybrid fullback-tight end position that Clark refers to as the “wing” position.

Those players are redshirt freshman Darius McFarland and redshirt junior Kyle Griffits. It is the position that freshman Dallin Holker thrived in last season — he caught 19 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown — before changing his mind and deciding to go on a church mission. Holker will serve in Chile, beginning next month.

“I have a young group,” Clark said last week. “It has been challenging, getting them ready, because coach [Jeff] Grimes isn’t slowing down with the offense. It is full speed ahead. I am getting those guys coached up so they don’t hold the offense back. We gotta know a lot of stuff.”

BYU’s open spring practice and scrimmage featured more than 100 plays last Saturday, but players listed as tight ends on the roster did not record a single reception. However, McFarland — who redshirted last season after appearing in only one game — caught four passes for 33 yards and a touchdown. At 6-foot-2, 253 pounds, the Box Elder High product is an excellent athlete, Clark said, but not quite tall enough to play tight end full time in BYU’s system.

Three tight ends are currently on missions and expected to join the team this fall: 6-4 Donovan Hanna of Queen Creek, Ariz.; 6-4 Alema Pilimai of Tustin, Calif.; and 6-5 Isaac Rex of San Clemente, Calif. Pilimai played in five games in 2016 but did not record a catch. He can also play defense as a pass rusher.

There’s also some hope that former East High star Joe Tukuafu will return to the program, after sitting out last season for a variety of reasons. Clark declined to discuss Tukuafu’s status last week, but didn’t rule out a return.

Grimes said last week that the lack of healthy, experienced tight ends “impacts a little bit of what we do,” during spring practices.

“But I think we are flexible enough that we can do some things,” he continued. “In other ways, it helps us advance our game in other directions. It helps more receivers get more reps, or more backs get more reps.”

As for Bushman, BYU’s leading pass-catcher last season with 29 receptions for 511 yards and two touchdowns, he said Tuesday that he has been cleared to do more weightlifting after having shoulder surgery in January. The rising junior said he first hurt his shoulder in practice, then re-injured it in the loss to Northern Illinois on Oct. 27.

He played through the pain the rest of the season.

“There were times when it hurt, blocking and things like that,” Bushman said. “But for the most part, they were saying I couldn’t make it any worse — it was a torn labrum — so I just decided to play and get surgery after the season.”

Clark said Bushman knows the offense well enough and is talented enough to miss spring practices without hampering his progress, but acknowledged the lack of time in the weight room will slow what the former freshman All-American can do physically in 2019.


• Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Sr., 6-5, 242 — Rehabbing after knee surgery

• Addison Pulsipher, Sr., 6-5, 275 — Participating in spring practices

• Matt Bushman, Jr., 6-5, 240 — Rehabbing after shoulder surgery

• Nate Heaps, Soph., 6-4, 260 — Rehabbing after undisclosed surgery

• Tanner Leishman, Fr., 6-6, 235 — Participating in spring practices

• Hank Tuipulotu, Fr., 6-3, 235 — Rehabbing after undisclosed surgery

• Brayden Keim, Fr., 6-7, 259 — Participating in spring practices