TOPPER EXTRA: How Deon Yelder became the go-to guy at the tight end

Redshirt senior Deon Yelder (19) runs the ball while being chased by University of Illinois freshman Tony Adams (6) during WKU’s game vs Illinois on Saturday.

Sam Porter

During WKU’s journey to the Conference USA Championship game last season, an unlikely hero made arguably the most important play of the season. The Hilltoppers were sitting at 3-3 after a few unexpected losses and were on the road against Middle Tennessee State in a critical C-USA East division game.

The conference rivals found themselves tied 37-37 entering double overtime. The Blue Raiders got the ball first in the second overtime period and scored a touchdown to take a 43-37 lead, setting up the biggest play of the season at an unexpected time. On the ensuing extra point, junior tight end Deon Yelder leapt in the air and got his hands on MTSU kicker Canon Rooker’s extra point attempt, deflecting the football and causing it to fall short of the goalpost.

“I just remember getting coached real hard during that week,” Yelder said. “The coaches kept telling me I was going to get one. The line gave me a great push and me and Iggy [Joel Iyiegbuniwe] jumped, and it happened.”

Former WKU running back Anthony Wales punched it in from 1-yard out on the following possession, and former WKU kicker Skyler Simcox hit the extra point to give WKU the 44-43 victory.

Following the victory, the Hilltoppers never looked back, winning their next seven games en route to their second straight C-USA title and later, a Boca Raton Bowl win. Had Yelder not blocked the extra point and Rooker’s kick sailed through the uprights, MTSU would’ve represented the East in the C-USA championship instead of WKU.

Now, in his final season of eligibility, Yelder is making an impact on more than just special teams. A walk-on for four years including an initial redshirt year, Yelder earned a scholarship this offseason. In Mike Sanford’s new offense, the Louisville native has more of a role as a tight end than he did in former head coach Jeff Brohm’s spread offense. On top of the scholarship, Yelder also earned the starting job before WKU’s opener against Eastern Kentucky.

“Deon’s earned every opportunity that he has,” tight ends coach Ryan Mahaffey said. “He shows up each and every day, he works hard, he’s extremely consistent, he has a high care factor, and he proved to I think the staff and to his teammates that he’s a guy that can be relied upon to go out there and do his job day in and day out.”

Through three games, Yelder has become one of redshirt senior quarterback Mike White’s favorite targets. The former special teams hero is currently third on WKU’s roster in catches and receiving yards with 11 grabs for 111 total yards through three games. Last week against Louisiana Tech, Yelder led WKU with six catches for 54 yards. A handful of Yelder’s 11 catches have come on third down.

“He’s been lights out, he’s been our security blanket,” White said. “When all else fails, I’ve gotta go find Deon because he’s going to get it for you. He’s a big body in there, and if he’s not catching it, nobody is.”

At 6-4, 255 lbs, Yelder’s frame makes him a tough matchup for most defensive backs. His athleticism, which he displayed during his special teams heroics last year, makes him a tough matchup for linebackers.

“He has great size and great athleticism,” Mahaffey continued. “But what I think separates Deon from other tight ends is his mindset. He attacks, he wants to get downhill, he doesn’t back away from a challenge. He’s extremely coachable, but what I think separates Deon from other players is his heart, his tenacity and his competitive nature.”

Earlier this week, Yelder was named a John Mackey Tight End of the Week honorable mention for his efforts that earned him career highs in catches and yards against LA Tech. Yelder went from having literally zero offensive statistics in his first three years to being recognized as one of the top performers at his position across the entire country in just the third week of the season.

“It was a dream come true. That was my only dream when I got here,” Yelder said about earning a scholarship. “Coming out of high school, and where I come from it’s a huge accomplishment. Not a lot of people in my family go to college so it’s a big thing for me.”

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.