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Utes football: Utah tight ends Jake Murphy, Westlee Tonga springing forward

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah tight ends Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga are having quite a spring.

“Those two guys have separated themselves from the pack,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham.

It’s not that the other tight ends aren’t working hard or doing a good job, Whittingham explained. The separation has everything to do with Murphy and Tonga being really good.

“I think they could be one of the best tandems in the conference this year if they continue to develop,” Whittingham said.

The players currently share the top spot on the depth chart as spring ball progresses toward its final week.

“I think Jake and Westlee are doing a great job,” said quarterback Travis Wilson. “They run great routes. They know how to get open. They’re big targets and they’re definitely people that I trust throwing to.”

Like Wilson, the tight ends appreciate the more up-tempo offense that co-coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson are introducing this spring.

“I love it. We’ll see how it happens in the season but right now it’s a tight end’s dream,” Murphy said. “The blocking schemes really help us out and the routes are fun, so it’s been good.”

Tonga is also enjoying the situation.

“It’s been great this spring. We’ve been getting a lot of balls, getting a lot of reps and spreading it around,” he said. “But I think that is just a testimony to the offense. We’re clicking on all cylinders. I don’t think we’ve ever been this far ahead, as far ahead as we are, at this point in spring.”

The senior noted that there’s a drive to make everybody better each day. It’s a team thing.

For the two tight ends, though, it’s even more condensed.

“We always try to push each other. It’s a competitive situation every time you get on the football field,” Tonga said.”But we’re the best of friends. There’s no rivalry. That’s for sure.”

The players have a lot in common. Besides measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds apiece, Murphy and Tonga each served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before joining the Utes in 2010. (Murphy redshirted; Tonga did not).

And there’s more. Both have ties to local athletes of note. Murphy is the son of retired major leaguer Dale Murphy and Tonga’s brother-in-law is former BYU football star Reno Mahe.

Murphy, a junior, said he and Tonga have been real close during their time at Utah. It’s sparked a competitive situation that has led to both players making contributions on the field.

Murphy had 33 receptions last season and finished with a team-high four touchdown catches. Tonga, meanwhile, was one of 13 Utes to catch four of more passes in 2012.

“I think we’ve both been making plays, which makes each of us want to work harder,” Murphy said. “It’s a competition. We know that we’re both going to be able to be used with our strengths.”

At the same time, however, the two are engaged in a battle.

“It’s a competition, even though we’re real good friends off the field,” Murphy summarized. “(But) it’s a fun competition on the field.”

EXTRA POINTS: Whittingham said Thursday was another good day of practice. It was the 11th of 15 spring sessions. ... Freshman quarterback Brandon Cox has a “foot issue going on” that could sideline him for the rest of spring ball. ... The quarterback competition between Wilson and Adam Schulz was described by Whittingham as “very close.” He said their numbers have been almost identical this spring. ... Senior running back Kelvin York, who has hampered by turf toe, returned to practice Thursday. ... The Utes will scrimmage Saturday (10 a.m.-noon) at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It is open to the public.


Twitter: @DirkFacer