AMHERST — BYU senior defensive lineman JJ Nwigwe started as an offensive lineman for the Cougars but eventually moved to tight end.
While he was generally inserted into the game for blocking purposes, occasionally he did run pass routes and even had one reception in a game.
But he did work quite a bit on his catching skills during that time — effort that paid off Saturday during BYU’s 56-24 win at UMass.
In the second quarter, Nwigwe was part of a rush package that got some pressure, forcing Minuteman quarterback Andrew Brito to get rid of the ball in a hurry.
“I think I was just in a good place at a good time,” Nwigwe said after the game. “All the credit goes to our defense. It was a big coverage hurry, Khyiris (Tonga) with the hurry. All of our secondary had the receivers locked up. The quarterback tried to throw it away. It was like he looked at me and he threw it. I was like, ‘oh, my! I can catch this!’”
Nwigwe grinned as he said the interception didn’t turn out to be that simple.
“Of course I didn’t catch it initially,” Nwigwe said. “It hit my helmet, bounced off my shoulder pads and then I kind of double-caught it in the air. Finally I secured the ball.”
He said even in that moment he was reminded of what he had been taught back when he was an offensive player.
“When I would drop passes, the tight end coaches would harp on me to look the ball in,” Nwigwe said. “I think that was what running through my head when I was trying to double-catch it, just look the ball in. I just really appreciate Coach Steve Clark for all those years in the tight end room.”
That pick gave BYU excellent field position and kept the Cougar defense playing with all the momentum.
“It was crazy, unreal,” Nwigwe said. “Seeing the sideline get hyped after that was really fun.”
BYU would score two plays later on an 18-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Zach Wilson to sophomore wide receiver Gunner Romney and then add another score before halftime to make the score 49-0 at the break.
Nwigwe and the Cougar defense put together a phenomenal first half, allowing no points and giving up just 16 total yards to the UMass offense.
“We came out and the first half was really good,” Nwigwe said. “That allowed some of the younger guys to come in and show what they can do. We always have to improve, from the starters to the No. 3s so if they come in there is no dropoff. This was a good experience for our younger guys. The extra reps helped us prepare for the last few games of the season.”
That success, however, wouldn’t last after the break as BYU went deep into the depth chart and the third-string guys made plenty of mistakes. The Minutemen tallied 276 yards and 24 points in the second half.
“In the second half, we had a lot of guys make some plays and we had a lot of guys give up some plays,” Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake said. “I think it’s OK to learn some really tough lessons and still come away winning. That should make our team better. I’m not really happy with the performance by our defense in the second half. UMass made plays wherever we made mistakes. That can’t happen any more.”
Nwigwe believes that the third-string guys played with plenty of energy but didn’t make the plays that were there to be made. He hopes they view it as a chance to get better and not be too disappointed with themselves.
“The message is to keep your head up and keep fighting,” Nwigwe said. “You can’t coach effort. Keep the effort and intensity there. You’re going to make some mistakes but don’t let those mistakes get you. Some plays aren’t going to go as you wanted but that happens at all levels. You just have to bounce back from that.”