Utah tight ends coach Jay Hill says there is a five-way battle at the tight end position right now.
What, the Utes actually have a tight end position on their football team?
Perhaps it hasn't been apparent since Urban Meyer coached his spread offense with as many as four or five wide receivers, but since the '04 season, the Utes have gradually utilized the tight end position more.
The Utes use a tight end more than people realize. It's just that the tight end is more of a blocker in the Utes' system, rather than a pass-catcher.
The five fighting for the starting spot are senior Colt Sampson, juniors Chris Joppru and Ben Hendy and sophomores Brad Clifford and Neli A'asa.
"Right now there's five guys we really like that are all competing and doing a real good job," Hill said earlier this week. "I think it's good to have five guys competing. It's not like some teams that have one guy and the others aren't good enough to play. Clifford took an early lead, but the other guys have really been playing well."
Coach Kyle Whittingham was a little more definitive Friday, saying it's a battle between Sampson and Clifford right now with Joppru, an improving No. 3. A'asa is currently out of the picture because of a knee injury and Whittingham wonders if he'll be able to catch up once he returns from his injury.
Sampson has the edge experience-wise. He is a 25-year-old fifth-year senior who caught three passes, with two of them going for touchdowns, in 2006. Last year he caught two passes in nine games, two of which he started.
Clifford is a walk-on from Olympus High, who earned a scholarship before the start of fall camp and has impressed coaches with his size (6-4, 250) and ability to catch the ball.
Joppru is the younger brother of NFL tight end Bennie Joppru, who graduated from Michigan in 2002. The 6-6, 258-pounder hasn't played much his first two years but has impressed lately.
"Chris Joppru has been playing as well as anyone and a few days ago he was my fourth guy," Hill said.
Hendy prepped at Hillcrest High and played two years at Temple before transferring and walking on to the Ute team last year, and he's still in the mix.
A'asa was part of one of the most memorable plays of the 2007 season. Against Wyoming, he caught a pass from Louie Sakoda on a fake field goal and rumbled to the 1-yard line on a 41-yard reception. He was a defensive tackle at the time, in as a blocker, and was switched to tight end just before the bowl game.
Last year five Ute tight ends caught a grand total of 12 passes in 13 games. The year before it was just seven passes caught by the tight ends. But even though they may not be catching many passes, they are still important to the Ute offense.
"Last year we played them a whole bunch," Hill said. "They were a big part of Darrell Mack's big rushing year. The more they're on the field, the more opportunity they'll have to catch the ball."
The tight ends would love to catch more passes, but are happy as long as their team is winning.
"I want to be a part of something great and if that's my role to block that's what I'm going to do," Sampson said. "We'll get some load passes every once in a while and that's great but I know my positives are more in the run blocking game. I've been trying to move to get some more passes, but whatever they ask me to do, I'll do."
"As a group we've had a great camp and we're trying to show that we can be a big part of this offense," said Clifford.
Hill said the starter for the season opener will likely be determined by the end of next week.
"Oh yeah, we're closing in on that," Hill said. "Going into that last week of practice we'll have it finalized. The best guy over the time period before the Michigan game will play."
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