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‘It’s the way the offensive game has evolved’: Tight ends have increased prominence at Utah and in NFL

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Utah Utes tight end Brant Kuithe (80) breaks a tackle by Idaho State Bengals linebacker Kennon Smith (31) and goes in for a touchdown against the Idaho State Bengals during NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. Kuithe led the Utes in receiving during the 2019 season, with 34 receptions for 602 yards and six touchdowns.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Tight ends have come into prominence. Besides Brant Kuithe leading Utah in receptions last season, the two teams reaching the Super Bowl were topped by tight ends. Travis Kelce had a team-high 97 catches and 1,229 yards for the Kansas City Chiefs, while George Kittle led the San Francisco 49ers with 85 receptions and 1,053 yards.

“They’re good players, and you’re just trying to utilize the matchup advantage that you can gain,” said Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who added that it’s a players’ game and those guys are exceptional.

Freddie Whittingham, the tight ends coach for the Utes, agrees. Teams are stocking up at the position, getting guys with abilities to capitalize on. He noted that tight ends with athleticism are major factors in the passing game, especially those with size that can block and secure an edge. 

“I do think it’s the way the offensive game has evolved,” Whittingham said. “You go through different eras and periods where different offensive schemes are kind of the trendy thing.”

Kelce’s 1,129 receiving yards last season ranked fourth in the NFL. His 97 catches were eighth. Other tight ends in the top 17 in terms of receptions were Darren Waller of the Raiders (90), Zach Ertz of the Eagles (88) and Kittle (85).

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Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Kansas City Chiefs won 31-20.

Steve Luciano, AP

Teams like the Falcons have incorporated a lot of two tight end alignments.

“You can use them in a variety of ways — anywhere from in the backfield like a fullback to a traditional tight end to split out, looking more like a slot receiver,” Whittingham explained. “It does lend itself to a lot of creativity, formations and what you can do.”

Although spread offenses went from the college to pro ranks, increased tight end usage kind of trickled down from the NFL.

“In the last six or seven years in this offensive scheme the utilization of the tight ends, especially with players like Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham, it’s been a very productive part of this offensive structure.” — Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig

Ludwig acknowledged the Utes didn’t have many tight ends during his previous stint as offensive coordinator (2005-08). Things have obvious progressed since then. Ludwig returned to the program last season after stints at California, San Diego State, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt.

“In the last six or seven years in this offensive scheme the utilization of the tight ends, especially with players like Brant Kuithe and Cole Fotheringham, it’s been a very productive part of this offensive structure,” Ludwig said.

Whittingham credits the scheme Ludwig employs for much of the growth. It’s developed over his time as an offensive coordinator.

“If you’ve got the guys to put in there at tight end, he likes to run a lot of personnel stints where we have two tight ends in there, and it kinds of put the defensive coordinator in a bind because we’ve got those bigger bodies that can block if a defense doesn’t load up with base personnel and linebackers,” Whittingham said. “It’s tough for them to stop the run. But if they do that and you’ve got a couple of tight ends that run routes and catch the ball like we do, then it’s tough for a linebacker to matchup with a tight end in those situations. You can run some play action pass and throw the ball. 

“So I think it makes your offense kind of less predictable and more versatile,” he continued. “Because if you line up with guys that can block in the run game or get separation, get open and catch the ball in the throw game, then the defense is really on their heels.”

Even more so when considering how it can alter the strengths of formation with a lot of shifts and motions with the tight ends.