SALT LAKE CITY — Besides extending Utah's postseason winning streak to nine games, last December's Poinsettia Bowl victory over California may have also provided a glimpse into the future.
The Utes brought tight ends back into prominence.
After the position produced just one touchdown reception in the first 12 games of the season, the total number of scores rose to three in the Poinsettia Bowl. Tight end Kendrick Moeai, a redshirt freshman, caught two touchdown passes in Utah's 37-27 victory over California.
"It's a great feeling when you get in that end zone," Moeai said. "So hopefully this year we can build upon it."
That's the plan.
With Moeai, senior Brad Clifford, sophomore Dallin Rogers and freshman Westlee Tonga, the Utes have a solid and sizable group at the position. All of them are at least 6-foot-4 and weigh 240 pounds or more.
"It's the first time since I've been here that we've had a full stable of tight ends that are dual-threat players," said co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. "People keep asking me what's the difference between each one and the best answer I can give is that there isn't a lot of difference between each one.
"That's what you want. You want four tight ends that can block, run route and catch," he continued while noting that they can all split out and play receiver or line-up in the backfield as fullbacks.
Their versatility should keep defenses guessing. By doing things the Utes used to have wideouts do, co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Dave Schramm said they should be able to create mismatches and alter defensive schemes.
Though they only combined for five catches, Clifford and Moeai picked up valuable playing time last season.
"They're a lot more experienced and they're more ready to play. Experience is everything in this game," Schramm said, adding that it is especially important for tight ends because they do so many things. "This game is like riding a bike. You get better by doing it and playing at a high level."
Schramm is pleased with the development of all four tight ends, including Rogers and Tonga, who recently returned from LDS Church missions.
"They've worked their tails off," Schramm said of the group.
The hard work is expected to pay dividends this fall.
"Without a doubt they are going to be a much more featured aspect of our offense," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "As long as they keep performing, which they have, all four are going to play and they are going to get balls thrown their way."
It's a very competitive situation, he added, with Clifford perhaps slightly ahead of the other three on the depth chart.
Clifford believes the competition is beneficial because it encourages everyone to excel.
"Every single one of these guys are capable and that's scary for every team that we play," Clifford said. "I look at it as a positive. It makes me better. Yeah, I'm an old guy. Yeah, I'm probably the most experienced in this group. But it's pushing me every day to be better because there's so much athleticism and there's so much talent."
Quarterback Jordan Wynn agrees with Clifford's assessment.
"They're good athletes, big targets and they are definitely going to be some huge weapons this year," Wynn said before acknowledging that more passes will likely be thrown to the tight ends this season. "A lot of stuff has been incorporated with them. Like I've said, all four of them could come in and play. They're deep at that position. They're big, athletic guys that can create some mismatches."
Clifford explained that it's all up to the players to make things happen.39 comments on this story
"We have the best coaches in the nation. Honestly, if we just live up to what they're putting up in front of us then, yeah, we'll use it," he said. "But ultimately it rides on our shoulders if we do it or not."
As expected, the tight ends are capitalizing on the situation.
"Right now they are giving us opportunities and we're making the best of it," Moeai said.