Can BYU’s upperclassmen tight ends bring back some success of days gone by?

Former Cougar tight ends Andrew George, above left, and Dennis Pitta pose for a photo at the BYU football offices earlier this week.

Earlier this week, BYU football’s Facebook page released a photo that made me reminisce.

In the shot were Dennis Pitta and Andrew George, the tight end duo that finished their BYU careers together in 2009, as they visited the BYU football offices. The post called them “quite possibly the best tight end duo in BYU history.”

High praise, indeed, for George and Pitta, and they deserve it. Of course, Cougar fans quickly pointed out two other tight end duos that should be considered the best in school history: Chad Lewis/Itula Mili and Jonny Harline/Daniel Coats.

In the case of all three tight end combos, both players went out as seniors the same year.

Let’s look at the present for a minute. With BYU opening fall camp next week, and with five tight ends on this year’s roster who are either juniors or seniors, what can the team expect from the position in 2013?

This is a group long on potential but lacking in overall results. At times, Kaneakua Friel, Richard Wilson, Austin Holt, Marcus Mathews and Devin Mahina have shown flashes of the play Cougar fans have come to expect out of the tight end position. But inconsistency and injuries have hindered the Cougar careers of these five. Deseret News sports reporter Brandon Gurney reported earlier this week that Holt may even make a position change, to defensive end. (You can check out his six-part series previewing BYU’s spring camp beginning here with the offensive backfield preview).

What made players like Pitta and George, or Lewis and Mili, or Harline and Coats so valuable was that, in addition to their regular contributions to the passing game, they had the abilities to be game-changers.

Lewis caught a late touchdown to help BYU rally past Wyoming in the 1996 WAC Championship game, after Mili went down with a season-ending knee injury earlier in the game. Coats caught two touchdown passes against Georgia Tech in his first game as a Cougar. Pitta nabbed the game-winning touchdown catch against Colorado State in 2008 and came up with clutch catches in the upset win over Oklahoma in 2009.

And who can forget Harline’s and George’s game-winning touchdowns in two of the Cougars’ past three wins over rival Utah?

These are just a few examples of some of the game-changing efforts these past Cougars have provided.

It will be interesting to see what Robert Anae’s move back to Provo will do in returning the Cougars’ passing attack to its former glory, particularly for the tight ends.

From 2005-09 during Anae’s first stint as BYU’s offensive coordinator, BYU had a tight end finish the year first or second on the team in receptions or receiving yards every season. The best year came in 2009, when Pitta was tops on the team in receptions (62) and receiving yards (829), while George tied for third-best in receptions with 30.

During that five-year span, the Cougars’ top two tight ends combined for an average of 10.4 touchdown receptions each season.

But in Anae’s final year with BYU in his first go-round as offensive coordinator, five tight ends — including Mahina, Mathews, Wilson and Holt — combined for 34 catches for 481 yards and no touchdowns in 2010.

In the past two seasons, when Anae was a part of the University of Arizona coaching staff, the numbers haven’t improved vastly from that position group.

In 2011, Mathews was the team’s top receiving tight end, with 27 catches for 299 yards and one touchdown, his game-winning catch that beat Utah State.

Last year, Friel emerged as the team’s top tight end option, finishing with 30 catches for 308 yards and five touchdowns. His top performance of the year — six catches for 101 yards and two TDs in the season opener against Washington State — nearly comprised a third of his full-season production.

Cougar tight ends have caught a total of 11 touchdowns in the past three seasons; that’s one fewer than Harline himself caught in 2006.

Will Anae be able to again form a tight end tandem that helps power the Cougar passing attack? Can these upperclassmen finally showcase their potential and become game-changers? For some, it’s their final chance.

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