After what felt like an eternity, the Brigham Young Cougars saw a tight end play like the tight ends of old in the 2012 season opener against Washington State. Kaneakua Friel was the surprise starting tight end coming out of fall camp. In his first start, he led the team with six receptions for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Going into 2012, BYU was three years removed from the days when consensus All-American tight end Dennis Pitta was the focal point of the offense. Replacing Pitta, the NCAA record holder for career receiving yards by a tight end, was no small task, but it’s not like it was the first time BYU had to replace a pro-caliber tight end.
BYU had several highly touted prospects lined up to take Pitta’s place. Austin Holt, Richard Wilson, and Devin Mahina were all ranked nationally in the top 11 of tight ends in their respective recruiting classes. However, they were all freshmen in 2010, and their inexperience showed. As a unit, the tight ends averaged just 2.6 receptions and 35 yards receiving per game. No touchdowns were caught by tight ends. Mahina led this trio with 11 receptions and 118 yards.
With a year of experience under their belts, the tight ends were going to be back to form in 2011. One by one, they went down with season ending injuries. Mahina hurt his neck before the season even started. Wilson blew out his knee in game 7 at Oregon State. Holt’s knee went out three games later.
This series of injuries made 205 pound Marcus Mathews the primary receiving threat for BYU at tight end. Mathews finished 2011 with 27 receptions for 299 yards and 1 TD, but his size limited what he, and BYU, was capable of doing.
In 2010, when this musical chairs of tight ends began, Friel was halfway across the world in South Africa. He was serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he returned in 2011, Friel didn’t figure to have a chance to work his way onto the field. He was less heralded out of high school, and was out of shape after two years away from the game.
The injuries gave Friel an opportunity to play in 2011, but it was assumed he was just keeping the seat warm until the others returned. There was nothing about his 7 receptions for 55 yards that made anyone believe he could do better than the others.
Mathews gained 30 pounds during the offseason, but, in a surprise move, coaches had him switch to wide receiver at the end of fall camp. Holt, Mahina, and Wilson were all slow to recover from their injuries, which led to Friel getting the starting nod for the 2012 season opener.
Friel made his first catch with less than a minute to play in the first quarter. The 10-yard gain gave BYU a first down. Eight plays later, Friel found himself wide open at the goal line. Quarterback Taysom Hill found him, too. Touchdown!
With star receiver Cody Hoffman out with a quad contusion, the passes kept coming Friel’s way. As the second quarter wound down, Friel made his biggest catch.
Quarterback Riley Nelson lobbed a pass to Friel. He had to out jump a defender for the ball at the 13-yard line. Friel proceeded to turn up field. He picked up a nice block at the 5-yard line, and bowled over a Washington State defender at the 1 to get into the end zone for the second time, and to put BYU up 24-3.
Five of Friel’s six receptions resulted in a first down or touchdown. The only thing stopping him from having six first downs was a false start penalty, so his 13-yard reception on 1st and 15 brought up 2nd and 2.
Following the game, Friel said of his performance, "What I have been working on this year is consistency. Being a good player day in and day out. It just feels good to be able to help the team in such a great way, and help the team get a win."
For two whole seasons, BYU had been missing this element from its offense. Friel brought the tight end back last night.
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