When he was a fullback at BYU in the 1980s, Freddie Whittingham played with a teammate who earned All-America honors as a tight end — Chris Smith.

“It all starts with (Andy) Ludwig’s scheme and what he brought here since 2019 in terms of truly incorporating the tight ends in an NFL style.” — Utah tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham

Before Smith, the Cougars boasted other All-America tight ends like Clay Brown, Gordon Hudson, David Mills and Trevor Molini.

Several other All-America tight ends followed after Whittingham’s time in Provo as BYU played a role in revolutionizing that position starting in the 1970s. 

Decades later, as Utah’s tight ends coach, Whittingham has helped elevate and showcase that position for the Utes.

Dalton Kincaid, for example, was picked in the first round, No. 25 overall, by the Buffalo Bills in last month’s NFL draft. Brant Kuithe, who has been very productive for years before he suffered a season-ending knee injury last fall, returns in 2023. 

Utah has become an attractive landing spot for tight ends. 

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“As the tight ends coach, I love it. It’s nice to have your guys be contributors in a big-time way to the offense,” Whittingham said. “It all starts with (offensive coordinator Andy) Ludwig’s scheme and what he brought here since 2019 in terms of truly incorporating the tight ends in an NFL style, like they do in the league where a lot of the offense does run through them as far as from the beginning of the play with all the pre-snap motions and shifts and things like that to what they’re able to do in terms of being mismatches for the defense. 

“As the tight ends coach, I couldn’t be more thrilled that we have such a feature on that position in this offense,” he added. “Hopefully, it really helps us attract the pipeline of tight ends for the future, too. We want to have a major role in the offense.”

Recruiting tight ends

Whittingham said that the tight end position is one of the most difficult positions to evaluate high school players and determine their success at this level. 

And Kincaid is a prime example. 

“If you look at it, Dalton didn’t have any offers coming out of high school. When I recruited him as a transfer out of the University of San Diego, he was relatively unknown,” Whittingham said. “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.”

Strengthening the tight ends room requires looking high and low for tight-end prospects, like CJ Jacobsen, a three-star prospect from Idaho.

“I think that it’s going to be a blend of scouring the transfer portal for guys that have been in college for a few years and want to come to an offense where they know they’re going to be targeted in the passing game because that’s not the case in a lot of college offenses,” Whittingham said. “And also develop for the NFL. And then finding those high school players that also want to join the program, guys like CJ Jacobsen, coming in this summer.

“As long as coach Ludwig is here, with his offense, utilizing the tight ends the way we utilize them, I can’t imagine why you would be a tight end and not be interested in playing in this offense.”

The Kincaid factor

Kincaid’s success at Utah serves as a recruiting tool as the Utes try to continue that tight end pipeline.

“We’ve got that momentum going,” Whittingham said. “I expect that assembly line to keep going with the tight ends with Brant Kuithe and Thomas Yassmin. Then the next guys up after that. That’s our expectation.”

Kincaid himself has been a great recruiter by being outspoken about his experience at Utah. 

That’s something Whittingham expected from Kincaid. 

Utah Utes tight end Thomas Yassmin (87) catches the ball during warmups before the start of a game vs. Colorado Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“It’s not surprising to me because that’s authentically the guy that he is and the guy that he’s been here during the three years he was here. I have a lot of gratitude and appreciation for him, that he’s doing that,” Whittingham said. “He doesn’t have to do that. A lot of players that leave their college don’t do that. But I think he’s the type of guy that’s very generous and sincere with his gratitude. That speaks to the type of person that he is.”

Who’s next at tight end?

Kincaid enjoyed an outstanding career at Utah. In 51 games, Kuithe has 148 receptions for 1,882 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s also rushed 17 times for 162 yards and four TDs during his career. 

A three-time All-Pac-12 performer, Kuithe earned second-team all-conference honors in 2019, 2020 and 2021. His 148 catches are the most by a Utah tight end since at least 1996. He ranks eighth overall in school history in receptions.

Kuithe saw what Kincaid was able to accomplish last season. 

“I think what Dalton was able to do definitely motivates Brant. Brant is another guy with a lot of talent and ability,” Whittingham said. “He’s shown in the past things that he can do. What Dalton did has motivated Brant to want to come back better than ever.”

Yassmin also stepped up when Kuithe suffered his injury and made a lot of big plays for the Utes.

During spring practices, Miki Suguturaga switched from defensive end to tight end. 

What does Whittingham think about the tight ends room?

“The big thing has been Miki’s transition to tight end from defensive end. He’s made a lot of progress. He’s become a very good blocker in the run game. He still has a lot of work to do in this break and in fall camp,” he said. “Thomas Yassmin had a very good spring. He’s improved his game overall in both phases — run-blocking and route-running.

“We’re able to get some good reps for newer guys like Noah Bennee. He really stood out as a receiving tight end. We also had a chance to get more of a look at Isaac Vaha than we’ve ever had. He did some really good things.

“It’s good to see him healthy and on the field. We’ve got a lot of work to do, though,” Whittingham continued. “The standard is high for this group. Like I tell them every day, there’s the expectation that that standard continues to be met at the same level. So we have a lot of work to do this offseason and summer development and when we get to fall camp.”

How does Whittingham assess Suguturaga’s progress? 

“Primarily, he’s progressed as a run blocker. We need to get him more involved in the throw game. So just as far as polishing up his route-running and understanding coverages, because there are some routes that we run where they need to adjust it based on where the safety’s location is,” he said. “As he watches more film and spends more time at the position, he’s shown improvement and gotten better over the course of (spring practices) but he still has a ways to go there.

“I’m really encouraged by all of the physical attributes that he brings to the position,” he contiunued. “He’s got great size, good quickness, long arms and very soft hands. He has all the tools to be another very good tight end for us … Miki averaged a touchdown every two receptions that he had last year. He can do some things with the ball in his hand. He’s so hard to tackle.”

Whittingham called Vaha, a sophomore from Pleasant Grove, “an interesting guy.” Vaha did not play the last two seasons. 

“He’s got a big body. He’s 6-6, 260 pounds and has very soft hands. He’s been hampered by some injuries but he’s back and he’s out here now,” he said. “It’s good to see him out here. He’s been very much improved this spring but he still has a long way to go.”

Utah Utes Noah Bennee celebrates after beating the USC Trojans in the Pac-12 championship at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. The former Olympus High star has transitioned from receiver to tight end and has turned some heads in the process. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News