The BYU Cougars were among the lucky ones.
The Cougars fit in two weeks of spring football before the pandemic halted all sports operations, allowed voluntary workouts on campus as of June 1 and started fall camp in early August before even having a season-opening opponent. Thanks to all of that, BYU set itself up as one of more prepared teams going into the 2020 season.
But all that preparation couldn’t spare the Cougars from the unexpected.
On Monday, a week before kicking off the season at Navy on Labor Day, Matt Bushman suffered a season-ending injury.
Since Bushman announced in January he’d forgo the NFL draft to play one more season, coaches talked about their expectations for their tight end. Throughout fall camp, coaches said Bushman had shown much improvement and they intended to build a significant chunk of their offense around the 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior.
Suddenly, the staff had less than a week to rethink the offensive strategy.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes can only remember one or two other injuries that have saddened him as much as Bushman’s injury did in his 28-year coaching career.
“Just because I’ve seen so much growth in Matt the last couple of years,” Grimes said. “The way that he’s trusted us as a coaching staff. The way that he’s developed as a leader, as a complete player. And I have no question that he was in position to have a tremendous senior year. We’ll miss him. We really will. We’ll miss his leadership and we’ll miss his play on the field.”
But the show must go on.
So, the coaches sat down after Monday’s practice to discuss how to replace Bushman. The answer isn’t as simple as one player — it will have to be a collective effort to make up the difference.
Isaac Rex will take Bushman’s spot on the depth chart as the starting tight end, and will likely take also take over on certain plays, but sophomore Masen Wake could also step into the role depending on the situation.
“There are a number of plays where we just insert another tight end, some plays we might target someone a little differently as a primary receiver,” Grimes said. “But it certainly affected our game plan and the first thing was to try to do our best to get the right guys in the right spots.”
BYU AT NAVY
When • Monday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN
Bushman has been the top target for the Cougars throughout his career, leading the team in 2017, 2018 and 2019 in receiving yards. Last season, the tight end posted 688 yards and four touchdowns on 47 receptions.
Without Bushman available, the receiving group will need to step up as well.
BYU graduated leading wide receivers Micah Simon, Aleva Hifo and Talon Shumway, but still have returners Gunner Romney and Dax Milne. The Cougars also saw the return of Neil Pau’u.
While unfortunate, the loss of Bushman has served as a reset for the group.
“I wouldn’t use the word pressure, but [we’re] definitely more aware that we need to fill in kind of the role that Matt was in,” Milne said. “We’re kind of using different guys for different plays that Matt was kind of a key part of. We were already going into [the season] planning on making plays, but it’s just another point of motivation for us.”
Should the offense focus more on the ground game, there’s strong candidates in Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier, who were listed as co-starters on the depth chart against Navy.
Katoa, one of the top two rushers last year, was making a case of the starting role since spring ball, but Allgeier showed much improvement through fall camp to earn the co-start according to coaches.
Grimes said he has confidence in both of them, but Allgeier has gotten himself into the best shape of his career.
“He’s leaner than he has been, stronger than he has been, faster, and so I think he’s in better shape than he’s ever been in before,” Grimes said. “[He] has run really hard and really physical in this camp and then he’s proven himself in the other areas as well as a receiver and as a blocker. He’s really stepped his game up and showed us that we can trust him to that extent. So, I like both those guys.”