Anybody really understand what a tight end is or exactly what’s going on there? Me neither. It’s by far the strangest position in all of football, kind of a mash-up, a crossover, a hybrid of every position.
None of which rolls together easily.
It’s like the odd combination of a dump truck and a Formula 1 rocket, like the hypothetical love child of Meatloaf and Kate Upton. It’s Cro-Magnon man in dancing shoes.
Some coaches don’t even know what they want out of their tight end, or even if they want a tight end. Some favor a beastly blocker, others a beautiful receiver. Some look for strength, others for soft hands. Some utilize them as a sixth big ugly to secure the point of attack, others throw them the ball, making them a featured part of the offense.
And that last one is currently the case around here. The tight end has become all the rage, the hotspot in BYU and Utah football.
The Utes have five main tight ends, and you’re about to get to know them a whole lot better. Kyle Whittingham says any one of them could be a starter. No. 5 on that list is Kendrick Moeai, who once was the starter. Jake Murphy, who had 78 receiving yards and two touchdowns in Utah’s opener, teamed with David Rolf and Dallin Rogers for nine catches in that game. Westlee Tonga is another gifted TE.
“We’ve never been this deep or this talented,” says Whittingham. “Jake has mad ball skills. Two or three of them are among our best 11 offensive players.”
BYU, led now by Kaneakua Friel, who snagged six passes for 101 yards and two TDs in the Cougars’ first game, has a total of 10 tight ends on its roster. Austin Holt, who caught one pass against Washington State, and Richard Wilson are also in the top mix.
“We’re going to utilize them like we have in the past,” says offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. “To say they’re going to be as good as [former Cougar] Dennis Pitta, I don’t know. But we’re giving them opportunities to be BYU tight ends.”
Past BYU notables include Clay Brown, Gordon Hudson, Itula Mili, Chad Lewis, Andrew George and Pitta.
Since Pitta soared through the 2009 season, Cougar tight ends had gone subterranean — “It hasn’t been exactly what we wanted,” Doman says — before their re-emergence in 2012’s first game.
“The player I’m happy with is Kaneakua,” Bronco Mendenhall says. “And there’s Austin and Richard, and when you add Marcus [Mathews], all of a sudden the athleticism and the numbers look pretty good.”
Emblematic of the hybrid nature of the position, Mathews has pinged and ponged from receiver to tight end to receiver. Utah’s Rolf has been even more versatile. In high school, he played linebacker, receiver, long snapper, punter, defensive end and safety. At Utah, he was supposed to be a defensive lineman — until switching to tight end last season.
“I’ve done it all,” he says. “I like playing tight end, but I’m still learning. Running routes is the toughest thing.”
For Murphy, that’s the easiest thing: “David has real good blocking skills. Kendrick and Dallin and Westlee all have different skills. But we all want to be all-around tight ends. I was more of a receiver. Then, I gained 45 pounds on my mission.”
A steady diet of pig, horse and taro during his time in Sydney supersized Murphy — “I just kept expanding,” he says — and moved him from outside to inside. After a redshirt year and then an MCL tear last season, Murphy says he is “100 percent” now. He looked it against Northern Colorado.
“To get this right, you’ve got to be able to do it all — run, block and catch,” he says. “And you’ve got to be tough.”
On account of varying roles, no other player, outside of quarterback, has to grasp offensive schemes like a tight end. In both BYU’s and Utah’s attacks, different players are called upon in certain situations according to their specific strengths. But, like Murphy says, all of them want to be the master of everything.
Both Doman and Utah OC Brian Johnson understand the value they have at tight end, thus the new revolution there.
“BJ knows how talented our guys are,” says Ilaisa Tuiaki, Utah’s tight ends coach. “He’s doing a good job of using them. All five are good enough to start, but there’s only one ball to go around.”
Tuiaki says his dream scenario is to see the Ute offense go four tight ends — “We want all five out there,” he says — but he’ll take whatever he can get.
“We’re so deep at that position,” he says. “We’re trying to get the most out of them.”
After Week 1, the Ute and Cougar tight ends have been both brutes and beauts, blocking hard and catching 16 balls for 213 yards and four touchdowns. And there’s more to come.
Cro-Magnon man has found his dancing shoes.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.