The Three Amigos Give Cowboys an Edge at Tight End
Laramie -- It is a rare occurrence when you have three talented seniors sharing the same position on a football team and all three play equally significant roles, but that is the luxury the Wyoming Cowboy offense has entering the 2018 season. Seniors Austin Fort, Josh Harshman and Tyree Mayfield will form one of the most versatile tight end groups in the Mountain West Conference this coming season.
The three seniors all have their individual strengths, but in many ways they are interchangeable. In the 2017 season, Mayfield started eight of 13 games. Harshman started seven and Fort started two despite missing the first five games of his junior season due to injury. In four of those games, the Cowboys featured a lineup with two of the three tights ends as starters. The three combined for 33 catches for 363 yards and three touchdowns in 2017. Harshman caught 12 passes for 136 yards. Mayfield had 11 receptions for 108, and Fort caught 10 balls for 119 yards and scored all three TDs.
Mayfield was recruited as a tight end out of Central High School in St. Joseph, Mo. Fort and Harshman came to Wyoming not imagining they would be playing tight end someday. Fort was recruited to UW as a quarterback from Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyo. Harshman was a quarterback and linebacker at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyo., and originally thought he was going to play linebacker for the Cowboys.
While all three say they compete against each other everyday in practice for playing time, they also have found a balance between competing and finding ways for each of them to help their team win.
“We’re good friends, but it is still a competition to play,” said Mayfield. “We’re all good at certain plays. We all know the plays that we’re good at, and we’re trying to critique ourselves on the plays that we’re not the best at. We all try to be a better overall tight end at every single position we line up at, so that we can be interchangeable. We all have that mentality and are trying to be more versatile. It feels really good to see how the tight end position and our offense has grown here.”
For fans who may not know the different places that the tight ends line up within Wyoming’s offense, we asked Mayfield to explain the tight ends’ role.
“We either line up on the line of scrimmage, attached to the formation, in the pro position, which is on the wing, or in the backfield as a fullback,” said Mayfield. “I guess we’re giving the coaches some faith in the tight ends since they are moving us around. We all continue to work on our (pass) routes and work on our blocking, so we can all play every position that we may be put in.”
Fort does admit that it is unusual to have three players all share the same position equally, but he says it is working well.
“I think it is unique to have three guys at the same position all in the same class,” said Fort. “The nature of the tight end position is it can work because we have multiple tight ends on the field at times throughout the game.
“You look at other positions like running back or quarterback where one guy is taking the main load of the reps and it may not work as well at those positions, but I think we look at it as a way to push each other to make each other better.
“We’re all competing, because we all want to get as much playing time as possible, but we do a good job of balancing competing with one another in a positive way and working as a team. I’d say that is what makes our group so great is our number one priority is making the offense as good as possible.
“I think that also speaks to the team chemistry as a whole, and that starts with Coach Bohl. That’s a culture thing. That’s not just a coincidence.”
Harshman agrees that the friendship the three have built with one another contributes to the success of the shared role.
“Our relationships and roles on the team have continued to grow through the years,” said Harshman. “Last year, it was all three of us sharing time on offense and on special teams. Hopefully, we can carry that forward into this coming season. Of course, each of us would like to be the starter, but each one of us knows we will accept whatever our role is on the team and try to make the team better anyway we can.
“We’re all competitors. That’s why we’re here playing football. But I feel that competition makes us thrive and makes us come together even more. Each one of us is striving to get better, which makes all of us get better overall. It’s a good thing.”
Coaching the tight end group this year is fifth-year Wyoming assistant coach Mike Bath, who also coaches the Cowboy fullbacks. Asked about coaching this unique group of three senior tight ends who have all played significant roles for the Cowboys, Bath said. “Yes, it really is unique. Oddly enough, I was in the same situation where I had three senior tight ends about 10 years ago at Miami (Ohio). While this is the first year I’m coaching the tight ends here, what is neat is I’ve coached these guys on special teams during my time at Wyoming, so they know me and they know how I am as a coach.
“The other neat thing is they have been so open. They ask questions about why we do things certain ways. They are hungry to continue to learn and get better. They’ve accepted the change and really probably more so attacked the change in the sense of trying to grow as players. All three of those guys has a sense of urgency, which is positive, is refreshing and is what you want from seniors. It has been really enjoyable coaching them.”
Not only have the three seniors built a strong relationship on the field, but it has carried through to their friendship off the field.
“We’re real good friends,” said Mayfield. “We all got a movie pass together this year. We’ll see each other after a meeting or practice and say, ‘hey movie in 10 minutes, let’s go,’ and we’ll drop everything and just go to the movies or something. It’s been fun.
“We do have a little movie crew on the team. We have a text group,” said Fort. “Someone will text, ‘hey let’s go see a new movie at seven o’clock tonight and we’ll all show up. It’s a good tradition. We’re best friends, really. We all live in separate apartments, but we hang out all the time -- just really, really good friendship. We have each other’s backs. It is a really high level chemistry.”
“Being in meetings and practices with Austin and Tyree everyday, you build friendships with each other,” said Harshman. “It has continued to grow through time. We’ve gotten to know each other so well. It’s going to be an awesome senior season. It’s just fun to be around guys like that, guys who have the same interests as you. We can talk about anything with each other. It’s been a great experience getting to know those guys.”
Mayfield says their shared years of experience have made for a huge advantage on the field.
“Yeah, it makes it so much better,” said Mayfield. “It’s gotten to a point in practice when one of us runs a (pass) route, before he even finishes the route the other two of us are talking about, ‘he should have tried this or he should have tried that.’ Then he’ll come back and we’ll talk about it. We’re right there helping each other read defensive coverages, giving each other tips and tricks on how to run routes. It really helps all of us get better.”
Harshman says that the strong relationships they’ve developed have benefitted not only them individually, but the entire group.
“We have gotten to know each other very well, and we hang out with each other all the time during meetings and other football activities, so we’ve developed good lines of communication with each other,” said Harshman. “Anytime Tyree or Austin is coming off the field, we’re all asking each other, ‘what did you see on that play.’ It just helps give us an edge when the next guy goes in and has to step up and make a play. It definitely benefits us all to communicate, and I think it is something that is pretty special among us. It’s been good for us and good for the team.”
For Coach Bath, another thing that he has enjoyed about coaching his three senior tight ends this spring is that they are very team oriented and very unselfish.
“I’ve always felt that tight end is a very unique position in the sense that you get guys who have a really high level of selflessness,” said Bath. “Having these three guys, I always hear them talking amongst each other about the last play or the upcoming play. When you hear players always talking football and always helping each other out it shows that they have an understanding that for us to be successful as a team and to get to where we want to be all of us need to be growing and getting better. And they want that for each other. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s been fun.”
Another area where Mayfield, Harshman and Fort have displayed their unselfish nature is they have also all played on special teams throughout their careers.
“I think Coach (AJ) Cooper and I would probably say Tyree has been our best special teams player,” said Bath. “That speaks to Tyree’s willingness to do whatever he can for the team. Josh has been more than willing to do anything on special teams, and Austin’s role on special teams grew more last year and needs to grow more this season.
“All three of those guys have done all the little things necessary to be successful. If you talk to the strength staff, they’ll tell you those three guys have been phenomenal all offseason.”
For Mayfield, he hopes his love for special teams may also give him an edge in pursuing his dream of one day playing football in the NFL.
“Honestly, I see it as a ticket to the next level,” said Mayfield. “I guess you could say I’m a little undersized for a tight end at the NFL level, so I need an extra edge and I think that is special teams. I try to take pride in that. I have a little joke that no one can guard me on special teams. Kickoff is my favorite. It is so fun. You just get to shut your brain off and just go down and hit someone.”
For Fort and Harshman we asked if it has been special being Wyoming natives and playing at the University of Wyoming?
“I have definitely learned over the years what being a Wyoming kid and then coming and playing for the Cowboys means. It is a big deal,” said Harshman. “I don’t know if I really understood that as a freshman or a sophomore, but people in the state care about how Austin and I do. Representing the state in the right way and doing the right things, whether that be off the field or on the field, it’s definitely something to take a lot of pride in. It’s been awesome, and I’m very glad I came to the University of Wyoming.”
“It’s really special, said Fort. “I’ve been around the program for a long time, since I was a junior in high school and there was a different coaching staff here. I’ve been here through the transition of coaching staffs and the building of this program. From where it started to where it is now, it’s just an unbelievable difference. I think to live through that growing period, to see the opportunity we have now and to see what it means to everyone for the Cowboys to not only be relevant but have a chance to win the Mountain West and bring that type of pride to the state is a huge honor.
“For both Josh and me to be playing tight end here and both being Wyoming guys, we carry that flag of representing the state and we’ve become really good friends. It worked out that he didn’t redshirt and ended up playing his true freshman season here, so we ended up in the same class. We’re teammates and brothers now.”
Before they became teammates at the University of Wyoming, Harshman and Fort were once rivals. Harshman playing at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyo., for his father and head coach Steve Harshman. While Fort was a standout at Campbell County High School in Gillette. Both played quarterback in high school, and we asked their teammate Mayfield if the old quarterback in them ever comes out in the tight end meeting room.
“No, it’s more us making fun of them for being old quarterbacks,” said Mayfield. “And they joke with one another once in awhile. Austin (Fort) is a year older and was the starting quarterback in high school when Josh (Harshman) was playing J.V., so Austin’s joke is always, ‘oh, Josh wouldn’t know about that, he was on J.V.’”
Fort’s version of the story provides a little more detail to the story.
“Starting my junior year of high school playing against Natrona County, I joke with Josh a lot because he was a year younger than me and he was on J.V. that year,” laughs Fort. “When we go back and forth about the state championship game that year -- they beat us in the championship -- I always tell him, ‘well you were on J.V. so you didn’t play, you can’t talk about that.’
“But the next year, I did get to play against Josh. He was playing linebacker and Logan (Wilson) was out at corner. They were both very good football players in high school. I threw a slant and Harsh dove and tipped the ball and Logan picked it off. We share a lot of fun memories like that. I knew Coach (Steve) Harshman a little bit too, and I have a lot of respect for him too, so those memories go way back.”
"It is true my sophomore year I wasn’t playing varsity when we beat his Campbell County team for the state championship,” said Harshman. “But the next year, we played against each other and I forced Austin to make a few turnovers at quarterback. He did try to throw that slant route against us. It was a slant/bubble screen concept, so I faked going to cover the bubble and then dove back at the slant, tipped the ball and then Logan (Wilson) picked it off and ran it back 20 or 30 yards. I’ll never let Austin live that one down.”
Asked if he had heard the story about their high school rivalry, Coach Bath replied, “I have heard Austin make the reference to Josh playing J.V. when Austin was playing varsity. There is some fun dialogue that goes on in the meeting room at times, and you need to allow the kids to joke around some to build a sense of chemistry.”
Bath was a record-setting quarterback himself at his alma mater Miami (Ohio), so we asked the coach if he thought playing quarterback had helped Fort and Harshman when it came to playing tight end. Bath laughed and added his own joke in regard to his three seniors, “I have to use kind of laymen’s terms with Tyree when describing offensive concepts, because he isn’t a former quarterback, and really because Austin and Josh didn’t quite make it through their college careers as quarterbacks I have to dumb it down for them too. Just kidding, they are all very bright young men, and I am enjoying coaching them very much.”
On a more serious note, we asked Coach Bath what added flexibility it provides the offensive coaching staff to have three senior tight ends who have all played significant roles for the Cowboys?
“They really do provide us with a lot of flexibility,” said Bath. “They are each different. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but they really don’t seem to care about individual accomplishments. I’m sure they each want to start every game, but being around them on the offensive side of the ball for the past three seasons and now being their position coach, they just want to win.”
What has Coach Bath seen from them in terms of their leadership skills and mentoring the younger players in the group?
“The younger guys in our group see me coaching three seniors who have that desire to be the best they can be,” said Bath. “That is a great thing for those young kids to see because it shows them what is expected of them in practice and gives them a better understanding of how we do things around here.
“The way the seniors act in meetings -- being attentive, asking questions -- that sets the example for the young players.
“I talk with all my players about how to become a leader on the team. To become a leader, you have to, on a consistent basis, show your teammates that you care about them, that you love them and that you care about the team.
“On the practice field, you have to play through the whistle. You’re teammates have to see you being the one holding every block to the end of each play, running the route the best you can run it every time, finishing every rep. When you do those things on a consistent basis and you show that you understannd that is what is expected on every play, then you can get on someone for not giving their best effort, you can pick somebody up and demand that they do what you are doing. But you’ve got to do that first, and then you’re teammates will listen to you.
“I see that in these three seniors, and I see that they understand those things and are communicating that to their teammates. When you get to that point, you can ramp up your leadership skills and your words are meaningful to others.”
Now that they are entering their senior season, have they begun to think about it being their final college season and have they noticed a difference in how they approach spring practices? The three admit that it is a little bit strange to think that they are seniors already, but they all are excited for the year ahead.
“I honestly didn’t believe it until practice number three or four this spring,” said Mayfield. “At times when you’re looking around for a little bit of energy, you realize there’s no Drew (Van Maanen), there’s no Josh (Allen) right there to get everyone going. As a senior, you’ve got to be like, ‘oh shoot that’s me now, now I’ve got to do it,’ so you have to bring a different energy.”
“I want to make the most of every single day,” said Fort. “The goal is to win the Mountain West, and I think our team has a good collective vision of that. In the long term, I want to kiss that trophy and say I’m a Mountain West champion.
“In the short term, I just want to be the best football player I can and have fun with it. What is the point of doing this if you’re not having fun. I get to come out here with my best friends and play football. It’s a huge blessing, and I’m loving it.
“I’m very, very proud of what we have. We have a cool opportunity next year to have a great senior year together and win a championship. The overall goal and vision is in December to hold that trophy and kiss that trophy and bring the championship back to War Memorial Stadium.”
“It’s been a crazy ride,” said Harshman. “Coming in and playing as a true freshman and winning only two games the entire season was difficult. But being part of the rise the last two years and playing with guys like Jake Hollister, Tanner Gentry, all those guys who encompass all the things that Coach Bohl came in and talked about and turning the program around and showing us the way. Now our job is to pass that tradition on to these younger guys. It has been something pretty special to be a part of. I’m glad the mindset around here has changed and people believe we can win a conference championship here. It’s an awesome culture to be around.”