Provo • Temperatures were in the high 90s Friday afternoon as the BYU Cougars practiced for the first time in shoulder pads, but one of the newest, yet oldest, members of the team wasn’t complaining one bit.
Anything beats standing on hot pavement in the Utah summer sun, holding up road construction traffic control signs as unhappy motorists whiz by.
That’s what tight end Joe Tukuafu did earlier this year, while waiting to see if he would be re-admitted back into BYU. The news came about a month ago that the former East High star had been accepted, and since then all he can think about is how grateful he is to get another chance playing the game he loves.
“I can only give thanks to BYU’s administration, to coach Kalani [Sitake] and to everyone for what they’ve done for me,” he said. “I was out and they helped me and influenced me to just keep the fire burning and keep wanting to play football and wanting to come back. I’m thrilled to be back.”
Tukuafu, a sophomore in eligibility, says he ballooned to nearly 300 pounds in his two years away from the game, but dropped more than 30 pounds the past few months and is listed at 265 now.
“I was pretty much working out in the sun, doing construction, and doing traffic control,” he said. “So I love it. It has been a positive to lose that much weight. I love the way I am playing with my new weight. I feel faster, and smoother. So I will just continue to lose a few more pounds [of fat], then bulk up with muscle.”
When it was learned that Tukuafu was returning to the Cougars, many surmised it would be as an offensive lineman, but Sitake quickly dispelled that notion last week.
“He has a No. 87 jersey on,” Sitake said. “It is still a little tight. But he’s a tight end for us. We will need his presence on the line of scrimmage.”
He originally signed with Utah State after helping East win 4A state titles in 2013 and 2014, then went on a church mission to Argentina. When he got home and Sitake had replaced Bronco Mendenhall as BYU’s head coach and defensive coordinator Iliaisa Tuiaki had also arrived in Provo, Tukuafu wanted to reunite with two “mentors” who he first met in 2010.
In BYU’s 2017 spring game, Tukuafu shined, along with fellow tight end Matt Bushman, and it appeared the Cougars were going to have a potent one-two punch for second-year OC Ty Detmer. However, then-Utah State head coach Matt Wells blocked the transfer, and Tukuafu had to redshirt.
Early in spring camp of 2018, Tukuafu sustained a fractured hand. When media day rolled around in June, he was no longer on the roster. He said “academics” and “other issues” were to blame, but declined to elaborate.
Now he’s back, eager to make up for lost time.
“Other schools [inquired], but I have always wanted to come back to BYU,” he said. “I stayed close to the coaches. I have always had the passion to play football again.”
He said he doesn’t blame USU or Wells in the least bit for not releasing him immediately to BYU so he could have played that first year.
“Even when that whole thing was going down, I didn’t have any hard feelings against them,” he said. “That’s just how it all worked out.”
The Cougars have no fewer than 10 tight ends on their roster — although Darius McFarland and Kyle Griffits are more like fullbacks, or H-backs — but Tukuafu says he’s been welcomed back warmly. A couple expected contributors — Moroni Laulu-Pututau and Hank Tuipulotu — are coming off ACL surgery and aren’t at full strength yet.
“Really, really happy [he’s back],” said tight ends coach Steve Clark. “And not just because he is a good football player. I really like Joe, love Joe. He’s really good, and he’s strong, but we gotta get him into shape. He’s not in great shape.”
But he’s in a much better place — than standing on the side of a road, holding a sign.
BYU’S TIGHT ENDS
• Matt Bushman, Jr., 6-5, 245
• Kyle Griffits, Jr., 6-3, 230
• Nate Heaps, So., 6-4, 260
• Moroni Laulu-Pututau, Sr., 6-5, 240
• Darius McFarland, Fr., 6-2, 238
• Alema Pilimai, So., 6-4, 235
• Isaac Rex, Fr., 6-6, 240
• Hank Tuipulotu, Fr., 6-3, 240
• Joe Tukuafu, So., 6-4, 265
• Carter Wheat, Fr., 6-4, 230