SALT LAKE CITY — Jake Murphy is in position to do something that hasn’t been done at the University of Utah in 23 years — lead the Utes in receiving as a tight end. Dennis Smith was the last guy to do it when he topped the team with 73 catches for 1,091 yards in 1989.
Murphy, a sophomore, is this year’s current leader. He holds a six-yard lead over receiver Dres Anderson with five games and a possible bowl appearance left to play.
“Jake has great receiving skills for a tight end. We’ve known that for a long time now,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s a guy that very seldom drops a ball. He’s reliable, and when you’ve got a reliable guy like that the guys feel comfortable going to him.”
As such, Whittingham acknowledged that adjustments have been made to Utah’s offensive scheme in order to utilize Murphy more often. He has tied for the team lead in receptions in each of the past three games. In Saturday’s loss at Oregon State, Murphy scored the Utes’ only touchdown — hauling in an 18-yard scoring strike from Travis Wilson.
“We’ve got things in the package to get him the ball more often,” Whittingham said. “The quarterback feels comfortable going to him because he’s been a reliable target.”
Murphy enters Saturday’s home game against California as Utah’s leader in receiving yards (239). His 22 receptions and three touchdown catches put him in a first-place tie with Anderson and Kenneth Scott, respectively.
Becoming a primary target is a different role for the 6-foot-4, 252-pound son of former Major League Baseball star Dale Murphy. He had only five receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown as a redshirt freshman in 2011.
“It’s different,” Murphy said. “But it’s exciting and fun.”
Involving tight ends in the spread offense, he added, is a good thing and has helped the Utes.
“The tight end passing game has been pretty open throughout a couple of games down the middle of the field,” Murphy said. “I feel with my receiving background that I can make some plays on the receiving end.”
Before serving an LDS Church mission in Australia, Murphy made 74 catches over his junior and senior seasons at American Fork High.
Murphy’s increased involvement in Utah’s offense comes at a time when the Utes are struggling with effectiveness under new coordinator Brian Johnson. They’re currently ranked among the nation’s bottom feeders in total offense (114th), rushing offense (109th), scoring offense (105th), passing offense (92nd) and pass efficiency offense (69th).
“It’s surprising — especially coming in — we knew we had weapons,” Murphy said. “It’s up to us to execute the plays coach Johnson calls. If we can execute it and block everything properly, just do that all to our best, I think we can be successful.”
Murphy saw progress at Oregon State, a noted tough place to play.
“We had our chances and we hung with them. We’re not satisfied with that. Obviously we wanted to get a win,” he said. “But at the same time, we know we’re talented. We know we can win in this conference, so we’ve just got to put it all together going into this game against Cal.”
Utah (2-5, 0-4) enters Saturday's contest on a four-game skid — getting outscored 117-56 during losses to Arizona State, USC, UCLA and Oregon State. The Utes’ last win was a 24-21 decision over BYU on Sept. 15.