I caught it. I was confused about what to do with the ball when I caught it. —JJ Nwigwe
PROVO — BYU junior JJ Nwigwe has always been an offensive lineman. He had never caught a pass in his life — until the first day of fall camp a couple of weeks ago.
As usual, Nwigwe spent the entire offseason honing his skills as an offensive tackle. Then, when he took the field on the first day of practices in preparation for the 2017 season, “I didn’t see my name on the list with the O-line,” Nwigwe said. “We started running plays, and they said, ‘JJ, hop in right here at tight end.’ I was like, ‘OK, I guess that’s where I’m playing now.’”
At one point, early in fall camp, Nwigwe lined up at tight end, ran a route and caught a pass. As a result, his teammates yelled, cheered and celebrated like crazy.
“In my head, I’m running my route, thinking, ‘The quarterback is probably going to throw it to me.’ Then he actually threw it to me, and I kept thinking, ‘Please don’t drop it. Please don’t drop it. Please don’t drop it,’” Nwigwe recalled. “I caught it. I was confused about what to do with the ball when I caught it. (Tight ends) coach (Steve) Clark yelled, ‘Run to the end zone!’ It was really cool to have the whole team get hyped when I caught the ball. It was really nice.”
For now, Nwigwe is a hybrid offensive tackle and tight end. He wears No. 96 when he’s a tight end (the same number of former BYU All-America and NFL All-Pro Chad Lewis) and No. 65 when he’s an offensive lineman.
“I’m in good company with Chad Lewis,” said the 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior from Rockwell, Texas. “I hope I don’t do too bad, wearing his number.”
Offensive coordinator Ty Detmer is eager to take advantage of Nwigwe’s abilities.
“He’ll have a 60 jersey on the sideline. He’s such a good athlete and physical player, he needs to be on the field somewhere,” Detmer said. “With where we’re at offensive line-wise, to get him there it might be best to have him as a big, physical tight end that can sneak out there and get out in some play-action. He’s made that transition and really taken ownership of it. He’ll be able to help us in the run game and sneak out there in play-action stuff.”
Quarterback Tanner Mangum likes having another option at tight end, both for pass protection and for pass-catching.
“He’s a team player, for sure. He’s willing to play wherever the coaches want him. He’s willing to get down and dirty — blocking and going out for a pass here and there,” Mangum said. “He’s athletic. To be able to play on the line your entire life and then switch to tight end, it’s a team player right there. The other day in practice he caught a pass and everyone went crazy. It’s fun to see a guy do something new and do it well. It’s a good feeling to have guys who are willing to sacrifice for the team and put themselves in different positions to help the team. It’s what you want to have.”
Catching passes isn’t Nwigwe’s strong suit now, but he’s improving.
“He’s getting better. You can’t expect him to come out and start catching everything,” Mangum said. “He’s working at it. We’ll use him in different aspects, for sure.”
Nwigwe has enjoyed his time at tight end.
“It’s really fun. There are a lot of awesome tight ends. That’s why I was so confused when they moved me to tight end,” he said. “The toughest part of it is running the routes and catching the ball. I’d never caught a ball in my life. The first practice when they threw me the ball and I caught it, I was surprised I caught it. It’s stuff I’m trying to get used to. The whole summer, I was training to be a tackle. Then the first day of fall camp I was a tight end.”