In the BYU Cougars offense under Robert Anae during his second stint as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator, the tight end position wasn't as much of a priority. One has to wonder what former tight end Devin Mahina could have done if the position was more of a focal point. Fast forward to Kalani Sitake's regime and the offense has taken on a whole new look with a familiar presence. Ty Detmer has taken the helm of the offense, and with that the tight end position has reemerged as a focus.
"The tight end position is new for all of them and they all came from different positions, except Hunter Marshall, who is starting along with Tanner Balderee, and they've progressed great, "said BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark. "We've got a good group of players that we're developing and we expect big things from them."
Expecting BYU's tight end position to do big things should stir excitement in the hearts of Cougar fans. Getting the position back to where it once was is the task that's been given to Coach Clark, so he has his eyes on developing his players to meet a high standard in order to reach the expectations placed on them.
"What we look for is a combination of blocking and route running, and everybody is on the route running and catching the ball but you have to block. We do a little bit of pass protection but not a lot. I've been very pleased with their attitude in the new system. We expect our players to be able to execute the expectations with high efficiency"
However, the success of the tight end position doesn't just reside within the parameters of the tight end group. Rather, a new mentality and comfort zone must be incorporated within the psyche of the quarterback position. Coach Clark explains.
"Another thing is the quarterbacks aren't as used to throwing to the tight ends," said Clark. "So their progressions have changed from going to the outside receivers to the inside. It's a whole new thing that even the quarterbacks have had to adjust to as well. Developing the tight end position is new to everyone. A lot of what we do is between the tackles now where they've never really looked before. The check downs are all different now. It's a learning experience for the quarterbacks too."
So as the two position groups adjust to scheme philosophy as a means to execute position strategy, Coach Clark has a concept of his own when it comes to finding the right kind of tight end he wants to coach.
"We talk about the fight everyday," Clark said. "That's the number one thing I want are fighters who go out and hustle. The number one attitude I want are those of fighters. They're unselfish and they have great attitude. Attitude and fight are the number one things we want our tight ends to have. They don't drop a lot of balls and there are a lot of packages there in the system. Sometimes we use two or three tight ends and they're part tackle, part fullback, and part receiver and they have to know all these things. I would say our tight ends are intelligent but not good looking. I want work horses not show horses."
While junior Tanner Balderree and sophomore Hunter Marshall lead the pack, Alema Pilimai is one player Coach Clark believes could reignite BYU's tight end position to that of the glory days. A true freshman, Pilimai has all the tools but lacks a few tangibles that are holding him back from making the position his own.
"Alema Pilimai is the fastest tight end of them all," Clark said. "He adds that element to our offense in being able to stretch the defense, but he's only 220 pounds and he's a true freshman. The speed of the game, the intricacies of the game, and the details of the game are new to him. So, that's what he's working on. He does it right but there are times when he's not as precise because he could get away with that in high school. He was a great athlete, but now he's going up against just as good athletes. He blocks and never backs down from anybody, so he's going to be good in the future, if not this year."
Another option is 6-5, 245-pound sophomore Troy Hinds, who was a highly recruited athlete out of Davis High School (UT). Hinds has all the physical tools: height, speed, weight, athleticism, but is currently suffering from a hip issue that has sidelined him since the middle of fall camp.
"Troy has [a] hip issue and so he hasn't been out here for 10 days," said Clark. "If we can get him healthy he has a great shot, but we haven't seen him as much out here because of the hips. He won't play this first game against Arizona and he won't travel. When camp started, the hip problem started, so we haven't been able to work with him enough. But, he's been in the meetings and he knows the assignments. It's about getting him out on the field and working with him and developing him when he gets healthy."
While Balderree and Hunter will start in BYU's season opener against Arizona, the future is bright for BYU's tight end position, especially when one includes current 2017 verbal commitments of Isaac Rex, Bentley Hanshaw, and Tanner Baker. For now, Coach Clark is focused on his current group of players under his charge. His experience as a tight end coach at BYU has been everything he had hoped for in his career.
"It's been everything I've hoped for," said Clark. "I grew up in Provo, so coaching here at BYU is a dream come true. I love it! Kalani tells you what he thinks and gives you thoughts every day, but at the same time he lets you be the coach and work with your players. If he sees something he'll let you know, but he lets you take the reigns of your position and go to work. It's been great working with this group of coaches and I couldn't be happier.”