SALT LAKE CITY — At the start of the season, when both coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said that the tight ends would be a bigger part of the offense this season, you figured they might just be blowing smoke.
After all, the Utes have traditionally not used the tight ends to catch passes and a year ago when they had two experienced senior tight ends, the pair caught a grand total of six passes and none for touchdowns in what was Taylor’s first year as offensive coordinator.
Turns out, maybe the Ute coaches weren’t just giving lip service after all.
Because it took less than a quarter of the first game of the season for the tight ends to make a splash and surpass their touchdown total of a year ago. By the end of the game, two tight ends — both true freshmen — had caught touchdown passes for the Utes in their 41-10 victory over Weber State.
In all, the Utes used four tight ends against the Wildcats — starter Jake Jackson, true freshmen Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe, and sophomore Connor Haller. The first three all caught passes and the two freshmen caught passes for touchdowns.
Fotheringham caught a three-yard pass from Tyler Huntley for a TD late in the first quarter against Weber and Kuithe was the recipient of a 29-yard touchdown pass from Huntley early in the fourth quarter, while Jackson caught a pass in the first quarter.
"The tight ends responded,” said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. “They made some plays and as long as they keep making plays they'll continue to be a big part of what we're doing."
Huntley was also impressed by the play of the tight ends.
"The tight ends . . . they've just been stepping up, making plays, just focusing on their job,” he said. “They really showed up."
The four tight ends who played Thursday night range in age from 18 to 24, but it was the two freshmen who got most of the attention because of their touchdown catches.
Fotheringham, a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder from San Clemente, California, who completed an LDS Church mission to Nicaragua earlier this year, was thrilled to get Utah’s first touchdown of the season when he leaked out from the right side as Huntley rolled out and found him in the end zone.
“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into it, but I had good feelings,” he said. “During fall camp we’ve been pretty involved in the offense. As we make more plays, we’ll be more involved in the offense and getting that trust from coach Taylor.
If we get two or three or four tight-end sets that’s awesome because we all get to go in.”
Both of the Utes’ touchdowns came on double tight-end sets and, as Fotheringham noted, the playbook has some offensive sets that use up to four tight ends.
Kuithe (pronounced Keeth-ee) is the youngest of the tight ends at 18 and a twin and the brother of Blake Kuithe who plays on the defensive line for the Utes. The brothers came to Utah together as they fell in love with the mountains “from the beginning.”
“I was glad to get in the first game and get a touchdown and thankful to my quarterback and offensive line,” he said. “We want to get more involved in the passing game as a tight end group and we got the job done. So hopefully we get more.”
Kuithe’s touchdown came on the third play of the fourth quarter when he got behind the defense down the right sideline for the score.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Jackson is the old man of the group, at 24. He came to Utah from San Diego in 2012, recruited by Dave Schramm and is a still just a junior after serving a church mission and sitting out a year as a redshirt. He’s excited that the tight ends are being involved more in the offense.
“It’s a good confidence builder going into next week for sure,” he said. “We’re in the game plan and we know that. We’ve been getting a lot of reps and it’s not like we got crazy work. We just make the most of it and make ourselves known and so coach Taylor knows he can trust us.”
Haller is the one local player among the tight ends, another returned missionary, who played for Olympus High. After playing defensive back in high school, he played linebacker for the Utes as a walk-on before moving to tight end and making the two-deep during fall camp.
The big question going forward might be how the Utes will be able to spread it around with so many talented tight ends, none of whom are seniors. However, the players don’t seem worried about it.
“We’ve got really good players,” Jackson said. “We’ve got Brant and Cole, they’re awesome true freshmen and they’re ready to play and they deserve to get some reps. It’s good to see them in there and succeed.”
Added Brant Kuithe: “We’re all talented and there’s room for everyone so there’s enough playing time. We just rotate in and are not selfish at all and are there for everyone.”