This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
With the emergence in spring camp of freshman returned missionary Matt Bushman, the transition of Moroni Laulu-Pututau from receiver to tight end and the expected return from injuries of 2016 regulars Tanner Balderree and Hunter Marshall, BYU should be in decent shape at the tight end position this fall.
That's fortunate, because it is looking more and more like another tight end who had an outstanding spring camp 6-foot-4, 280-pound freshman Joe Tukuafu will not be eligible to play this fall. That's because it does not appear that Utah State will release Tukuafu from the National Letter of Intent he signed with the Aggies in 2014.
Utah State coach Matt Wells would not say on March 29 whether he will release Tukuafu or not when he was questioned by The Salt Lake Tribune USU football beat writer Lynn Worthy. However, multiple sources have told the Tribune that it is very unlikely Utah State will grant the release.
Wells declined to give a reason for USU's refusal up to that point to give the release.
"He's not part of our program right now," Wells told Worthy. "We absolutely signed him to a letter of intent, and he chose not to come to Utah State, so that's about all I have to say on that."
Reporters were not able to interview Tukuafu at BYU's spring camp because the program has a longstanding rule forbidding "newcomers" to give interviews until they have played in a game. Second-year coach Kalani Sitake has made exceptions to the rule recently, however, allowing Bushman to be interviewed after he shined in the spring scrimmage and freshman returned missionary Kody Wilstead to be interviewed when the Cougars practiced in his hometown, Saint George.
Tukuafu is the East High (SLC) product who signed a National Letter of Intent with Utah State in 2014 before a church mission to Argentina and Houston. He returned to Utah briefly during his two-year mission to have meniscus surgery and finished out his service in Texas.
He told Total Blue Sports in January before he enrolled at BYU that Sitake getting the head job at BYU caused him to ask USU for the release when he returned. Sitake recruited Tukuafu to Utah when he was an assistant there, and got a commitment from the prep phenom before Tukuafu changed his mind late in the process and signed with USU.
Tukuafu said USU coaches contacted him when he returned from his mission last year and tried to get him to sign another NLI, but he declined because he wanted to re-open his recruitment. In December, he announced he was heading to BYU.
Tukuafu does not want to redshirt because he's two years older than the typical college freshman and is worried about his age down the road when he wants to play in the NFL. It is obviously a concern many returned missionaries, such as quarterback Tanner Mangum, face when they turn their attention to professional football and their draft status.
After the aforementioned scrimmage in which Tukuafu caught a 47-yard pass from Mangum, Sitake said the effort to get USU to sign the release so Tukuafu can play in 2017 is "still a work in progress."
"We have to get some releases and stuff like that. We have to just keep practicing and playing like he is going to [be eligible], and then if not we will just have to adjust," Sitake said.
Asked if the process is being held up by Utah State, Sitake nodded.
"Yeah, that's what it is going to be," he said. "I mean, there are a lot of different things that go with it. We would probably take a lot of time here talking about it. Hopefully we can get that going."
Ironically, USU's roster currently includes at least two former Cougars, safety Dallin Leavitt and offensive lineman Quin Ficklin. Leavitt had to sit out a year (2015) per NCAA transfer rules, while Ficklin is immediately eligible to play for USU this fall because he was a non-scholarship athlete at BYU last fall after playing in seven games for the Cougars in 2016.
A part-time fullback, Ficklin caught a huge pass for a 2-yard gain and a first down on fourth down in BYU's win at Michigan State last October.
BYU football spokesperson Brett Pyne confirmed that Tukuafu signed an NLI with Utah State before his mission "and has to be released by that school to be able to play this year. … He will have to sit out this next year, unless they release him."
Pyne said that unlike a situation with safety Michael Wadsworth transferring from Hawaii to BYU a few years ago after a mission in which Wadsworth had to pay his own way the first year at BYU, Tukuafu is currently on scholarship and receiving a financial grant-in-aid from BYU.