SALT LAKE CITY — “Find a way to help the team win.” That’s the mantra Utah tight end coach Freddie Whittingham has for the position group he oversees.
“Whatever it is, whatever your role is — blocking, catching passes, scoring touchdowns, whatever — find a way to help us win,” he said. “That will get them on the field.”
In a nutshell, that’s exactly what it will take, according to Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. The tight ends, simply put, are under a microscope of sorts.
“Their role will be as big as their playmaking ability allows it to be. Nobody’s going to get on the field just because,” he said. “If (they) make plays and can add to what we’re doing, they’ll play more. If they don’t add to what we’re doing, they won’t play at all. So it’s completely up to them.”
It’s a challenge Utah’s tight ends have taken to heart.
"That’s the goal. If we make plays, they’ll put us in,” said junior Jake Jackson. “So we’ve just got to keep making plays and keep putting in work.”
Jackson is part of a deep group of contenders at tight end. Kyle Whittingham said it’s the best depth the Utes have ever had at the position.
“We’ve got a lot of bodies there,” he said. “We’ve got like seven or eight bodies there and should be able to come away with something with all those guys.”
Jackson opened camp atop the depth chart. Sophomore Connor Haller was listed as the backup. Others competing for playing time include sophomore Bapa Falemaka (who is also getting a look at defensive end), redshirt freshman Zach Hansen and three true freshmen — Thomas Yassmin, Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham.
Freddie Whittingham said all of them are getting reps in camp, used in various roles, to discover who earns the chance to be in the rotation.
“So we’ve got to get four to five guys ready to travel and ready to play,” he said.
Jackson, who made three catches last season, headlines the cast.
“He does everything well. He’s consistent. He’s reliable, has very good hands if the ball comes his way. Good ball, bad ball, he seems to catch them all,” Freddie Whittingham said. “ He’s in a good spot. He’s got great effort in his blocking and continues to try to work on his fundamentals. He’s making progress every single day.”
Jackson’s leadership and maturity were also praised. Even so, like every other spot on the team, there’s an open competition for playing time.
“Those who step up and put the best plays on tape and understand what it is that we’re trying to get done and come to the table, then they’ll get the reps and be in the rotation,” Freddie Whittingham said.
Tight ends are expected to have a greater role in Utah’s offense in Troy Taylor’s second season as coordinator.
“We are going to utilize them as much as we possibly can. They’ll be a big part of the running game obviously and in play action and protection,” Taylor said. “We’ve been in more personnel groups with the tight ends involved than last year already. I think part of it is because we have more of them.”
Taylor explained that the Utes were pretty thin at the position last year. That’s no longer the case.
“There’s a ton of us. There’s like seven or eight of us,” said Jackson, who said that everyone is getting the hang of things. “They’ve got some serious competition at the spot and so you’ve got to continually show up, continually build trust and show the coaches you can do what you know you can do.”
In order to be a good tight end, Jackson explained, you’ve got to be able to block, run and catch balls — be a well-rounded player.5 comments on this story
“There’s a lot of elements and factors that go into it,” Kyle Whittingham said. “But what’s going to get us the best net result, that’s what we’re looking for. How can we become the best offense that we’re capable of becoming.”
Freddie Whittingham also acknowledged there’s a lot more to it. He said that tight ends put defensive coordinators into a bit of a dilemma. Using two or three against a heavy package should make it easier to throw the ball and make big explosive plays. If defenses opt to go with a 4-2-5 alignment, then it opens up the run.
“I feel like in the scheme this year (the tight ends) will have an opportunity to make some plays,” Freddie Whittingham added.