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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Wide receiver Samson Nacua and tight end Bapa Falemaka work with tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham during a University of Utah football practice at their outdoor practice facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
He’s really, really tough. He’s really smart, he’s athletic, and he’s got good hands. He goes up and catches the football, and he’s the fastest of the tight ends, so he can run routes and get separation from the defenders. —Fred Whittingham on Jake Jackson

SALT LAKE CITY — As injuries sidelined some of Utah’s most promising tight ends last August, Fred Whittingham began looking for converts.

He didn’t have to look far to find a guy who not only had the skills but also the desire to play the position that can make an offense tougher to read and much more versatile. Jake Jackson, a redshirt junior from California, not only made the switch, he also earned time in nine games as a tight end, finishing the season with three catches for 46 yards.

“Jake was kind of buried on the depth chart as a linebacker,” said Whittingham, who coaches the Ute tight ends. “I had my eye on him because I knew he played tight end in high school, and I saw him during practice catching balls, running routes. I thought, ‘He’s got soft hands, athletic, fast.’ So I approached his position coach about coming over and changing positions. He embraced it and earned more playing time.”

Whittingham’s instincts were validated this spring as Jackson has established himself as the No. 1 tight end.

“Right now he’s our number one guy going into the fall,” Whittingham said. “Jake has an incredible care factor. He’s really, really tough. He’s really smart, he’s athletic, and he’s got good hands. He goes up and catches the football, and he’s the fastest of the tight ends, so he can run routes and get separation from the defenders. It’s just the complete package of mastering the offense quickly, knowing his assignments, where to line and get the job done.”

He said Jackson could improve his run blocking but praised his “knack for making plays.”

Whittingham sees more depth at tight end as an opportunity for the Utes to better utilize the position that can make life a nightmare for defensive coordinators.

“I think the potential of this offense is phenomenal because when you put tight ends in there, it really creates a dilemma for the defensive coordinator,” Whittingham said. “You’ve got guys that are big enough to be good run blockers, but also they’re athletic enough to be good in the passing game, so you know, the defensive coordinators got a personnel decision to make.”

If a defense opts for extra safeties or corners, Utah can run. If opposing teams opt for linebackers, the passing game can be a better option.

“When you’ve got tight ends in the formation, it’s more of a guessing game for the defense,” he said.

Utah has practice more scenarios that have one back, two tight ends and two receivers on the field, rather than the more common single back, single tight end and three receivers.

“I think it helps disguise the plays a bit in the formations,” Whittingham said. “You have a lot of versatility and variety that you can do…So I think it’s going to have a pretty heavy role in the offense.”

That hope only becomes reality, however, if the personnel can block like linemen and run routes and catch like wide receivers. Whittingham thinks the 2018 group has the ability to do just that.

“We’ve got a good battle going for who is number two. Between Bapa Falemaka, Connor Haller, and (freshman) Zach Hansen has done a nice job,” Whittingham said. “We’ve run a lot of 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) over the course of the spring, and I am pleased. I feel like we’ve gotten a little bit better every single practice.”

He said that some of Utah’s most effective running games, against UCLA (272 rushing yards) and Colorado (310 rushing yards), were thanks to Utah’s ability to utilize tight ends in a 12-personnel set.

“If we can continue to master the position and keep improving,” he said, “I think we’re going to be a bigger part of the offense this season.”

The Utes will get at least three more promising athletes hoping to break into the tight end rotation for summer workouts and fall camp. Cole Fotheringham, a California native who returns from an LDS Church mission; Texas freshman Brant Kuithe, who arrives in the summer with his twin brother, Blake, a defensive end; and Australian freshman Thomas Yassmin, who has never played football.

“He’s 6-foot-5, 245 (pounds) and he is a 4.5 40 (yard dash) guy,” Whittingham said. “He’s played rugby and basketball, but he’s never played football before. …We’re going to square one, you know, like how to put on your pads.”