BYU counts on Hall-to-Pitta connection
It was three years ago. Hall was a redshirt-freshman transfer and Pitta was returning from his two-year Mormon mission in the Dominican Republic. Hall said he had heard a lot about Pitta's freshman season in 2004 and was eager to introduce himself since they'd be playing together in 2007.
"It was 2006 and [quarterback] John [Beck] was still here," Hall recalls. "So, I go up and introduce myself and say, 'Hey Dennis, I'm Max. Nice to meet you.' And he says, 'Oh, hey. Do you know where John Beck is?' And that was pretty much it."
Since that meeting, Hall and Pitta have become friends, brothers-in-law and one of the most lethal quarterback-tight end duos in the country.
Last season, Pitta finished with 83 catches for 1,083 yards and six touchdowns, ranking second on the team in each of the categories and second nationally among tight ends in receiving yards.
He returns for his senior season as the nation's top receiving tight end and Hall's top offensive weapon.
"Dennis, in my opinion -- and I don't say this shyly -- I really think he's the best tight end in the nation, and I think he has a chance to prove that this year," Hall said. "He's really worked hard in the offseason and he's just a guy we've relied on. He's a go-to guy for us that's dependable, will catch the ball and make plays. As a quarterback, to have a tight end like that opens up a lot of different things in the offense."
But Pitta wasn't always so highly regarded. In high school, he played wide receiver and cornerback. At one point, he thought his 6-foot-5 frame would be enough to land him a major scholarship, but the majority of his offers came from Ivy League schools that didn't offer scholarships. So, in 2003, Pitta became a preferred walk-on for BYU. He grayshirted that first year while he learned the offense and added more bulk to his frame. He switched from receiver to tight end in 2004 and used his freshman season to try to earn a scholarship.
"I was always confident in my ability and whatnot, but when you don't get a whole lot of offers coming out of high school, you start to question yourself and whether you really can play and all that,' Pitta said. "It's tough. I got to BYU and it was a long road to get where I'm at. Being a walk-on, you don't have everything handed to you. So you have to prove yourself day in and day out."
Pitta had 17 catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns to lead all BYU tight ends his freshman season. He went on his two-year mission after that season with hopes that a scholarship would be waiting for him when he returned.
Through the first few practices of his sophomore season in 2007, Pitta gained a scholarship and started to gain the confidence of sophomore quarterback Hall. The two became great friends off the field and the connection showed on the field. Pitta grabbed 59 passes for 813 yards and five touchdowns, but BYU star receiver Austin Collie and star running back Harvey Unga often got most of the press. Pitta also was overshadowed by nationally known tight ends such as Wisconsin's Travis Beckum, Missouri's Martin Rucker, Purdue's Dustin Keller and USC's Fred Davis.
Pitta instantly became BYU's best-kept secret. So when defenses started to key on Collie and Unga, Pitta became Hall's favorite target. It helped that the summer before the 2008 season, Pitta and Hall became brothers-in-law. Hall's wife Mckinzi introduced Pitta to her sister Mataya, and the two immediately hit it off. They were married in July 2008.
As Hall and Pitta spent even more time with each other away from the field, they started to form a bond. Pitta said he could give Hall a look and he'd know exactly what he was thinking.
That bond became evident during the first two games of last season when Pitta made 21 catches for 361 yards and a touchdown.
"I wasn't a household name, not a lot of people knew me and I was still trying to get the feel for the game, get my legs under me and all that," Pitta said. "Last season was the first season going in where I felt really good about my fitness level, about where I was as a football player, and I was able to have some really big games early. I think that kind of got my name out there a little bit and I was just able to continue and play well all season."
Suddenly, Pitta was on everyone's radar. He had four games with more than 100 yards receiving and two games with more than 175 yards. He was a first-team all-Mountain West selection and a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, which is handed out annually to the nation's best tight end.
Heading into the Sept. 5 opener against No. 3 Oklahoma, Pitta has caught at least one pass in 30 consecutive games dating back to Oct. 23, 2004.
"It's unbelievable that he started off as a walk-on," Hall said. "It just goes to show Dennis and his hard work, and his desire to be the best and his desire to really help our football team. You can't say enough good things about him because of where he was and where he is now."
Pitta knows that he won't have the luxury of being an unknown this season. With Collie gone to the NFL, Pitta is the Cougars' main target, so defenses will be ready for him. He spent much of his summer preparing to replace Collie. He assumed the leadership role that Collie once filled and has been a role model with his work ethic at practice. Hall said he's seen Pitta more focused and driven this year. And both hold high standards for their senior seasons.
"I've never been a guy that's been well-known at all for what I can do on the football field," Pitta said. "It's different, but I realize that it's something that I need to be grateful for and it's something that I need to stay humble through. It's a privilege to be in the situation that I'm in, and I can't take that for granted. So I think it even makes me work a little bit harder each day.
"If you would have asked me five years ago where I'd be at, I don't think I would have said right here. It's been a nice journey for me. It's been tough. It's been an uphill battle. But I definitely think it's been worth it."
Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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