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Utah has two starter-caliber tight ends returning. Here’s how that enhances the Utes’ offensive attack

The juniors are back after stellar seasons in 2019.

Utah Utes tight end Brant Kuithe (80) runs the ball in for a touchdown, putting the Utes up 7-0 over the Arizona Wildcats after the PAT, at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.
Utah Utes tight end Brant Kuithe (80) runs the ball in for a touchdown, putting the Utes up 7-0 over the Arizona Wildcats after the PAT, at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Legendary crooner Ella Fitzgerald once noted that “the only thing better than singing is more singing.” In the movie “The Water Boy,” coach Red Beaulieu remarked that “the only thing better than a crawfish dinner is five crawfish dinners.”

These days at the University of Utah, it could easily be said that the only thing better than having one starting tight end is having two. Such is the case with juniors Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham.

Despite having different skill sets, Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig acknowledged the duo is extremely valuable in what the Utes are doing.

“It gives you a chance to be diverse in what you’re doing formational,” Ludwig said. “With those two guys you can come out and look like a conventional two tight-end team or you can detach Brant and be in what we call 11 personnel, more of an open set.”

Ludwig added that there’s a lot of different looks in that group — one back, two tight ends, two wideouts — forcing defenses to make a lot of adjustments.

Fotheringham, who is 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, is mainly utilized as an inline tight end. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Kuithe is a move tight end — not always lining up on the line of scrimmage, often being shifted around in the backfield and detached as a wideout.

Both are talented players, Ludwig continued, they’re just different.

Tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham describes Fotheringham as more of a traditional player at the position.

”He’s an excellent blocker. He takes pride in his blocking, works on the technique, works on his footwork,” Whittingham said. “But he’s also a guy that has the athleticism to run routes.”

Even so, Fotheringham differs from Kuithe in a lot of ways.

“He’s not as much of a down-the-field guy as Brant,” Whittingham explained. “Brant has that ability to run the whole route tree like a wide receiver and Cole is more about the traditional tight-end routes and being able to do them real well.”

Fotheringham has started 23 times over the past two seasons and has played in all 28 games. The San Clemente, California, product, who served a church mission to Nicaragua, has career totals of 33 receptions for 346 yards and three touchdowns with the Utes.

Kuithe, who is from Katy, Texas, became the first tight end since Dennis Smith in 1989 to lead Utah in receptions. He made 34 catches last season and also topped the team in receiving yards (602) and receiving touchdowns (6). Add in three rushing scores and Kuithe tied for the national lead in TDs by a tight end.

The production resulted in All-America honors from Pro Football Focus and all-conference recognition from the Pac-12. Research by Sports Source Analytics revealed that Kuithe’s sophomore season was comparable to that of former Arizona star Rob Gronkowski in terms of yards per target. Gronkowski averaged 13.8 yards in 2007, while Kuithe checked in at 13.7.

“It blew me away,” Ludwig said. “I had no idea.”

Like Fotheringham, Kuithe has played in all 28 games over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He’s made 18 starts with 54 receptions for 829 yards and seven touchdowns.

Whittingham said the best thing about the guys is that even though they’re two-year starters with a good track record of performance, they’re stepping up and taking leadership roles — especially during challenges associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m biased. I really like those guys,” added Whittingham, who expressed confidence that they’re both working hard and are determined to get better and develop more parts of their game.

Utah Utes tight end Cole Fotheringham (89) dives for the golf line after hauling in a pass during the University of Utah football game against the University of Colorado at Folsom Field Boulder on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
Utah Utes tight end Cole Fotheringham (89) dives for the golf line after hauling in a pass during the University of Utah football game against the University of Colorado at Folsom Field Boulder on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

And that’s not all.

“I like the fact that they’re just juniors and they’re both on the leadership council,” Whittingham added. “And that they both are committed to the team and winning as many games as possible.”

Fotheringham and Kuithe, he continued, are really unselfish. They’re focused on doing what it takes to improve.

“I want them to just keep raising the bar and keep performing at a higher level each year that they’re here,” Whittingham said. “I sure hope that will be the case this upcoming season.”

Ludwig noted that Fotheringham handles line of scrimmage play like an offensive lineman and is a very good route runner.

“We don’t throw him the deep ball very often but his ability in the short and intermediate passing game to catch the ball and then run after the catch is really impressive,” Ludwig said. “When I went back and watched all the film from the year, this guy is really productive in the intermediate passing game.”

Fotheringham, he explained, is a violent runner that does a nice job of getting north and south.

Kuithe has developed into an obvious weapon as well. Whittingham isn’t completely surprised. He remembers Kuithe’s first training camp at Utah and how he fared in one-on-one pass drills against the defensive backs. Kuithe’s ability to run routes and get separation was impressive.

“I did not know that he possessed that,” said Whittingham, who noted that Kuithe was a very dynamic running back in high school. He had speed and good change of direction with the ball in is hands. “Now just knowing him and knowing what he can do physically and also kind of knowing his confidence level I’m no longer surprised.”

Whittingham predicts that Kuithe may have even more in the tank as he becomes a more featured part of the offense. Having both tight ends back, he said, enhances an attack that has four of five offensive linemen returning, plus a lot of key receivers and a ton of talent competing for the quarterback job. The emergence of a running back or two may be all that is needed for the offense to step forward in a season where nine starters are being replaced on defense.

“I feel like it’s kind of our chance this year as an offense to say ‘OK, we’re the experienced group. We’ve got to put a lot of points on the board, possess the football and keep it away from the other team and have a big, big impact,’” Whittingham said. “Let’s face it. The trademark has been defense. I’m sure they’ll reload and be high performance once again. We want to be known as an offense that scores points, wins games, that doesn’t just manage the game.”