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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah's Westlee Tonga (80), center left, works out Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, during practice.
I feel like I’ve had a lot of potential since I’ve been here, but haven’t realized any of it yet. I’m trying to leave here on a good note and get to that bowl game we’ve been looking for the past couple of years. —Utah tight end Westlee Tonga

SALT LAKE CITY — Westlee Tonga has been around the Utah football program for a while. At 26, he’s the second-oldest player on the team — “just a couple of years younger than me,’’ jokes tight ends coach/offensive coordinator Dave Christensen.

Tonga has usually been listed either as a starter or a backup at the tight end position during his four previous years at Utah and has always had big expectations that have never been fulfilled due mostly to a series of injuries he’s endured throughout his Ute career.

Let’s see, there was the knee injury his freshman year that sidelined him for three games. He played in just three games as a sophomore and suffered a concussion in the first game as a junior, which slowed him down. Then last year, in what was supposed to be his senior year, he went out with a knee injury early on and missed nearly the entire season.

That allowed him to redshirt and get a season back, and now Tonga is back and rarin’ to make a difference on the field for the Utes as the starting tight end.

Tonga had battled with Jake Murphy the last three years, but with Murphy leaving school early to try the NFL, the position is Tonga’s to lose.

“He is (the starter) right now,’’ said Christensen. “He’s been very consistent thus far this fall. He’s mature, he’s been around a long time and knows how to run routes and setting up the route. He has great hands and is doing a nice job leading also.’’

Tonga came to Utah from Spring Texas, where he was a captain and all-district for Spring High School. After signing with Utah in 2007, he went on an LDS mission to Las Vegas and returned to play in 2010.

The fact that he was a senior in high school when the current freshmen were in fourth grade doesn’t bother Tonga, who compliments the younger Ute players for their maturity.

“It’s quite a gap, but we have a mature class coming in this year and you grow real quick,’’ he said. “It’s nice to be able to take some guys under your wing because I’m so much older.’’

Tonga is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, but he plays a bit like a wide receiver, being able to get downfield to catch passes.

I give the team versatility, a little more over the top, pass-catching ability,’’ he said. “I’ve done my best since I got her to perfect my blocking and get better at that. It showed in the first couple of games of last season, and then I got hurt. I’m doing my best to be an all-around player and not just one-dimensional.’’

Tonga could have gone to BYU, where two of his sisters, Sunny and Kalani, played volleyball and his brother-in-law Reno Mahe played football (“He wears a BYU letterjacket with a red shirt underneath,’’ says Tonga). But he’s found going to Utah to be to his liking.

“It’s a good fit for me,’’ he said. “I like Salt Lake and am able to spread my wings a little bit, and I have some good support here.’’

Tonga is excited about the “new” offense under Christensen and feels he will be able to be utilized as both a pass-catcher and a blocker.

“The offense is clicking on all cylinders and going at a better clip than we did in the spring,’’ he said. “I think it’s been really good for us and I think it shows. It helps the quarterbacks throwing to the big bodies. Obviously we have the speed going over the top and the running backs out of the backfield and we have the big bodies to go to in the tight spaces.’’

When he’s not playing football, Tonga enjoys playing the guitar and hanging out with friends. But after a frustrating career filled with injuries, Tonga is excited about big things this season.

“I feel like I’ve had a lot of potential since I’ve been here, but haven’t realized any of it yet,’’ he said. “I’m trying to leave here on a good note and get to that bowl game we’ve been looking for the past couple of years.’’