One play in the Pac-12 Championship game exemplified what Utah’s tight ends have shown all season.
After T.J. Pledger scored to put Utah up 29-3 with 6:33 left in the third quarter, the Utes opted to go for two.
Junior tight end Dalton Kincaid ran a crossing route, and but was covered well by Ducks defenders. Quarterback Cam Rising evaded pressure from Oregon defensive tackle Kristian Williams and decided to tuck the ball and run. Kincaid saw Rising start to run, and blocked Oregon safety Jordan Happle out of the way, clearing a path for Rising into the end zone.
“That was pretty cool actually. I was running a crossing route and as soon as I saw Cam coming out, I kind of knew he was gonna go. It worked out perfectly and I think Cam kind of did it all on that play,” Kincaid said.
Whether blocking or catching touchdowns, Utah’s trio of tight ends — 6-foot-2, 230-pound Brant Kuithe, 6-4, 242-pound Kincaid and 6-4, 243-pound Cole Fotheringham — have a prominent role in the offense.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has featured the tight ends in Utah’s offense, rolling out “12” or “13” personnel — formations that feature one running back and two tight ends or one running back and three tight ends.
“Coach Ludwig has been doing a great job at implementing that. I think we ran the most 13 personnel in the country this year,” Kincaid said.
Utah’s tight end-heavy sets create a challenge for coaches and opposing defense to prepare for and cover.
“I think it just makes it difficult to kind of prepare and put out personnel because we could all be in the line or we could spread it out. One of us out, two of us out. So I think it just makes it difficult for defenses to game-plan,” Kincaid said.
“It adds a dynamic that a lot of teams don’t have,” Kuithe added.
Then-Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal backed that assessment up before Utah’s first matchup against the Ducks.
“They use multiple personnel groups and they use them in what we call broken sets. They’ll be in 12 and then break them out and get in 11 sets. They’ll use 13 personnel as well,” Cristobal said. “Their tight ends are excellent blockers.”
“This poses a different kind of challenge with the way again those broken sets, those guys are all over the place. They’re attached, detached, bunch sets, two-by-two, three-by-one. They move them, they shift them, they go in motion.
“So, disciplined eyes, aligning properly, assignment football, all that comes into play, and then you’ve got to play with power and technique and making sure that all the while, you’re playing with great intensity and finishing because you’ve got an excellent offensive operation that uses those guys and their abilities.”
In Utah’s 38-7 win against then-No. 3 Oregon at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Ludwig used the tight ends to help neutralize Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Utah nudged and chipped him using the tight ends, and it worked. Thibodeaux had no sacks and no tackles for loss.
“It was a great opportunity and it was something we were looking forward to all week. I mean, going up against a potential top-five draft pick is not something you have to do every week. We definitely were excited to go in and just do our best against him,” Kincaid said.
Utah’s first touchdown of the game highlighted the tight ends’ blocking ability against one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the nation.
Fotheringham and Kuithe lined up opposite Thibodeaux, with Fotheringham delivering a nice block. Running back Tavion Thomas ran to the opposite side of Thibodeaux, the left side, and Kuithe was his lead blocker.
“We just executed and just made sure that no matter what, we just keep the fundamentals and technique fundamentally sound, and in the pass game, just make sure we nudge him. We did a great job,” Kuithe said.
Kuithe also provided a spark in the passing game, with five receptions for a game-high 118 yards in the win.
Kuithe, Kincaid and Fotheringham are all pivotal in the Utes’ offense, which was second in points per game in the Pac-12, with 35.5.
“It’s been huge for us, not only (in the Pac-12 championship game) but all season long. We think that’s the best trio of tight ends in the country, you’ll be hard pressed to find any team that’s got three guys that are as talented as those three,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said after the Pac-12 championship win.
“Every week, all three of those guys as a group always bring great results. It’s an elite group. We might lose them all to the NFL — if so, we wish them well. They were really, I don’t want to say core of the offense this year, but they were huge. We played so many two-and-three-tight end sets, we had to lead the nation in two-and-three-tight end sets, and that’s because of their talent level.”
Kuithe had his breakout season as a sophomore in 2019 and has been a star on Utah’s offense since. He led the team in receptions (34), receiving yards (602) and receiving touchdowns (6) in 2019, then had 25 receptions for 236 yards in a pandemic-shortened five-game 2020 season. In 2021, he’s again leading Utah’s receiving corps with 534 yards on 44 receptions with six touchdowns.
Kincaid’s emergence this year has been a big key in Utah being able to roll out three tight ends on a play. He leads the team in touchdowns, with seven, and is third in receiving yards, with 465. Kincaid’s finest performance of the season came on the biggest stage yet, as he had four catches for 61 yards and a touchdown.
“I would say with Dalton added into the mix, the production went up. You saw that having me and Dalton on the field, it’s such a mismatch nightmare that matter who’s in, someone’s gonna get the ball or if we’re both in the game and they’re gonna double both of us, there’s someone that’s going to open up,” Kuithe said.” As far as tight end room production, I feel like it’s gone up from last year, especially getting him adds kind of a dynamic to the game.”
While he doesn’t have the receiving production of Kuithe and Kincaid this season — he’s caught 13 passes for 109 yards — Fotheringham is no less important to the tight ends room. He’s delivered key blocks all season, including the aforementioned block on Thibodeaux.
All told, Utah’s tight ends group has accounted for 1,114 of Utah’s 2,763 receiving yards and their blocks are crucial part of both the run and pass game.
Kuithe decided to return for his fourth season at Utah instead of declaring for the NFL draft in 2020, and it has paid off for him. Not only has he helped lead the Utes to their first-ever Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl appearance, he’s also added another season of tape to his vault, should he decide to declare for the NFL draft. Fellow tight end Fotheringham declared for the draft on Monday.
Kuithe hasn’t made a decision about the draft yet, only saying “I think you’ll know pretty soon” when asked after Monday’s practice.
“Just adding more to the film tape. Not sure I showed anything different, just kind of did the same things and hopefully I showed enough to get drafted, if I do decide to come out,” Kuithe said.
Next up for the trio and the Utes is the biggest game since the 2009 Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Utah will play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“It will be awesome. I think a lot of it’s just going to be be not getting too involved in the hype of it and just knowing it’s another game, but I think take a little moment, 15, 30 seconds, enjoy that. And then it’s just football,” Kincaid said.
“We’ve got one more game and one more goal, and that’s win the Rose Bowl,” Kuithe added.