When Utah tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham signed a little-known tight end transfer named Dalton Kincaid during the pandemic out of the University of San Diego — an FCS program that doesn’t offer scholarships for its football players — more than a few observers were flummoxed. 

“He is the best pass-catching tight end in this draft, a true seam stretcher with soft hands.” — ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. on Dalton Kincaid

“Dalton didn’t have any offers coming out of high school,” Whittingham recalled. “People were like, ‘Why are you taking this guy?’ But you saw him starting to develop into the type of player you knew he could become.”

But not even Whittingham could have imagined that Kincaid would develop into what he is now — a potential first-round NFL draft pick. 

That’s where the 6-foot-4, 246-pounder is projected to land in this week’s NFL draft. In an ESPN.com mock draft last week, he was the No. 15 pick overall of the Green Bay Packers. 

“He is the best pass-catching tight end in this draft, a true seam stretcher with soft hands,” wrote Mel Kiper Jr. 

Kincaid, a 23-year-old Las Vegas native, knows that his journey has been remarkable.

“It’s definitely something that’s crazy. It’s a dream come true for me,” he said. “A lot of people have gotten me here and sacrificed a lot so I’m very grateful for all those people to put me in a good position to succeed.”

The way Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig sees it, Kincaid’s skill set will translate smoothly to the next level. 

“From what I know of the NFL, I think that guy’s a great fit. I know he’s a great person. He’s a great competitor,” he said. “His football IQ is off the charts. You’re not going to find body control like that in a frame and his ability to catch contested footballs, so I’m fired up. I’m one of his biggest fans now.”

Said Whittingham: “Nobody brings the blend of speed, route running and the ability to get open and make contested catches. I think that whoever drafts him is going to look really, really smart eventually and they’ll have an All-Pro guy on their hands.”

‘The right guy at the right time’

Kincaid played only one season of high school football, at Faith Lutheran High in Las Vegas — and he earned all-state honors. He went on to the University of San Diego, where he ranked second among all FCS tight ends in receiving yards (835) and receiving yards per game (69.6).

“I loved every minute I spent at San Diego. It’s a great program and super successful,” Kincaid said. “The people there are great and the coaches cared a lot about developing players.”

At USD, Kincaid was essentially a walk-on because football players are not on scholarship. 

“Everyone that was on that team played basically by choice. Nobody was getting anything to play there. No scholarships,” he said. “That was a big part of it. They had no reason to play there except for the will and love of football.”

Is Dalton Kincaid a top 10 talent in the 2023 NFL draft?
Who is NFL draft prospect Dalton Kincaid?

When Whittingham recruited Kincaid from San Diego, he believed Kincaid had the potential of being drafted. 

“I said that behind the scenes when people were wondering why we were taking a transfer tight end from the University of San Diego,” he said.

But from the outside, there were questions about why the Utes would bring in another tight end, when they already had several experienced players at that position, including Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham

“I do feel like it was the right guy at the right time,” Whittingham said. Kincaid had just one reception for 14 years during the pandemic-ravaged 2020 season. But in 2021, he began to flourish. 

In the season opener against Weber State, he had four catches for 75 yards, and he hauled in a 37-yard reception against BYU. 

That prompted head coach Kyle Whittingham to say at that time, “Dalton Kincaid is, I think, the best-kept secret in the Pac-12. I’ve been saying that in camp and in several interviews. You saw what he can do. He’s a tremendous athlete. Great size, speed for a tight end. He’s the whole package. He’s a weapon for us. If he continues to play like (that), he’ll get more touches and more reps.”

Kincaid finished the 2021 campaign with 36 catches for 510 yards and eight touchdowns. 

Last summer, there were rumors and reports that national power Alabama of the SEC was trying to lure Kincaid to play for the Crimson Tide. 

Freddie Whittingham alluded to that when talking about recruiting Kincaid out of San Diego. 

“At the time, we didn’t have a ton of competing SEC teams offering half-a-million dollars in NIL when he was coming out. That happened later, apparently. That’s what I’ve heard,” he said. “We knew he had big-time ability. To his credit, he put himself in a position to be able to do what he did by his work ethic, by being very coachable and combining that with natural talent that you can’t coach.”

Exploding onto the national scene

For those around the country that still didn’t know about Kincaid, he authored a signature performance last October when, in No. 20 Utah’s memorable 43-42 victory over No. 7 USC, he caught 16 passes for a career-high 234 yards and a touchdown

That night, Kincaid was targeted 16 times and he caught every ball thrown his way.

Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid is tackled after a catch during a game against USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid is tackled during a game against USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. Kincaid finished the game with 16 catches in the Utes’ dramatic victory over the Trojans. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“He’s an absolute athlete,” coach Kyle Whittingham said about Kincaid after the game. “He’s got to be one of the best tight ends in the country, without a doubt.”

Kincaid finished one reception shy of the single-game FBS record for a tight end. New Mexico’s Emilio Vallez had 17 catches against UTEP in 1967 and Northwestern’s Jon Harvey had 17 catches against Michigan in 1982.

Weeks earlier, the Utes’ other standout tight end, Kuithe, had suffered a season-ending knee injury. 

But Kincaid picked up the slack — and then some. He ended up catching 70 passes for 890 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.

The impact of injuries

Kincaid put up those amazing numbers despite the fact he dealt with his own injury issues during the season. 

Twice he suffered injuries while scoring touchdowns. The first time was in late October at Washington State, causing him to be sidelined the following week at Arizona. Then in the regular-season finale at Colorado, Kincaid was injured while making an acrobatic TD grab in the first half and did not return to the game. 

Is Dalton Kincaid fully healthy ahead of the NFL draft?
How many Utah ties could get selected in the 2023 NFL draft?

Kincaid played in the Pac-12 championship game victory over USC but did not play in the loss to Penn State in the Rose Bowl. He finished his Utah career with 107 receptions for 1,414 yards and 16 touchdowns. 

While he was selected to the All-Pac-12 first team in 2022 and was an Associated Press third-team All-America selection, Kyle Whittingham said “it’s crazy” that he wasn’t a finalist for the Mackey Award, emblematic of the nation’s top tight end, or the Biletnikoff Award.

“I don’t want to make it sound like he wasn’t good at the onset. But we’ve just been featuring him more and more and he’s made more and more plays,” Whittingham said in early December. “You saw the catch that he made that he got dinged up on in the Colorado game. That was spectacular. It’s just a matter of continuing to maximize his skill set and understanding how incredible that skill set is. … He’s a terrific talent. He is a guy that every week we need to target a bunch of times.”

Meanwhile, had Kuithe not been injured, leaving such a void on offense, would Kincaid be in the position he is now? 

“That’s a really good question. It’s impossible for me to answer,” Freddie Whittingham said. “But becoming such a featured target in our offense definitely helped him after that happened. Bottom line, honestly, it did help him.

“At the same time, Brant is one of his best friends,” he continued. “He never would have wanted it to happen. He’s a consummate team guy, too, whether he has 70 receptions or 35 receptions, Dalton Kincaid is going to line up and do the right thing every single time.”

Preparing for the NFL

Kincaid did not participate in Utah’s Pro Day in March. He had just been cleared by doctors and he was getting ready for the draft and the ensuing training camp. 

But he’s enjoyed talking to NFL personnel during the draft process. 

“It’s fun. It’s talking about your upbringing and talking ball. That’s kind of my favorite part. You learn a lot in these interviews,” Kincaid said. “You’re talking to all of these different teams. They have different terminology and it’s a good time to grow and learn a lot about the game.”

Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid fields questions during a news conference at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, Friday, March 3, 2023. | Darron Cummings, Associated Press

Kincaid added that he’s shown teams “that I’m healthy, able to move and that I’m back to my true self.”

What does he think about the lofty projections for him going in the first round?

“Honestly, it’s more for my dad. He enjoys it a lot more. If I was to go in the first round, I think it would be awesome,” Kincaid said. “I think it would be a great reflection of this program. That would mean the most to me — reflecting coach Freddie Whittingham, coach Whittingham and coach Ludwig and what they’ve all sacrificed and done to get me in this position. If anything, I’d be super grateful to have that opportunity so they carry that with them as well.”

Freddie Whittingham has had many conversations about Kincaid with NFL personnel. 

“They all want to know things about him that they can’t see on tape,” he said. “Those things about Dalton, those soft skills of work ethic and character, and football aptitude, things like that, are all things are just as evident in his approach to football as everything you see him do on the field. He’s a complete package. I can enthusiastically endorse, to any of the NFL personnel, as far as somebody they would love to have on their roster.”

Kiper has called Kincaid “the best ‘move’ tight end in this class. He’s a legit playmaker in the pass game. At 6-foot-4, 246 pounds, he could do damage out of the slot or lined up next to a tackle.”

How does Kincaid assess his best attributes? 

“I definitely think my strengths are in the passing game. I think I’m very coachable in that aspect of the game,” he said. “But winning is the big thing and that’s been consistent throughout my career — just knowing how to win games.”

Kincaid helped Utah capture two consecutive Pac-12 championships and make it to two Rose Bowls. 

Certainly, Kincaid has come a long way since he started his collegiate career at the University of San Diego in 2018 and 2019, before making a huge impact with the Utes. 

Next stop? The NFL.

Freddie Whittingham recruited the relatively unknown tight end to Utah but he doesn’t take all of the credit for what Kincaid has accomplished since then.

“When you have really good talent that will work hard, you look like a better coach,” Whittingham said. “I’d be lying to tell you that everything that he did on the field was stuff that we coached. He has such a natural instinct and feel. But I’m really happy for him and that things have worked the way they have so far. I expect him to do great things at the next level, too.”

Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid warms up before a game against Oregon State Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Salt Lake City.
Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid warms up before a game against Oregon State Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Salt Lake City. This year’s draft class features an abundance of tight ends, which includes Kincaid, and some are even calling it better than the bumper crop of 2017. “The tight end group is the best I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah proclaimed. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press