2013 was supposed to be the year of the Utah tight end.
In two-tight end sets with Jake Murphy and Westlee Tonga, the Utes had unleashed a matchup nightmare: two 250-pound bruisers who could also stretch the field vertically.
But Tonga was lost for the season after blowing out his knee against BYU, Murphy hurt his wrist in a loss to UCLA, and Utah offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson went back to the drawing board. Three receivers, four receivers, two backs, whatever — it wasn’t the same.
“Once I went down and once Jake went down and we didn’t have those pieces to the puzzle, it made it a lot harder for our offense,” said Tonga, who found it agonizing to watch and know there was nothing he could do.
“That’s always hard, to see your family struggle.”
Now Dave Christensen assumes the mantle of OC, and while Ute fans may less frequently see two-tight sets, the “utility people” (as Tonga calls them) again factor heavily into Utah’s plan of attack.
“There will be a lot of variety,” said Christensen, who also takes the reins of the position group that Jay Hill left to accept the head coaching job at Weber State. Christensen said tight ends could line up in as many as nine spots in his system, and that “there’s a lot more asked of them now from a receiving standpoint now than there was in the past, probably.”
Rehab has been “long and boring and monotonous” for Tonga. With Murphy declaring himself eligible for the NFL Draft, Tonga is now the clear frontrunner to start. He says it helps this year that his backups — who include sophomore Siale Fakailoatonga, junior Evan Moeai, senior Greg Reese and redshirt freshman Harrison Handley — saw what happened in 2013 and realize the importance of staying ready.
“Even just knowing that [injuries] can happen, because it did last year,” Tonga said. “You try to get it through to the young guys that you’re not that far away from playing even if you’re low on the depth chart.”
In addition to Tonga’s steady presence, Christensen singled out Fakailoatonga and Moeai for their play this spring, “improving on a daily basis, showing a lot of improvement and a lot of promise,” he said. “I think all three of those guys will be in position to be able to play for us next year.”
Christensen said others have performed well, but the facts of spread offense life hold that tight ends buried on the depth chart have fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves.
Fakailoatonga said he loved Hill, but he’s excited about the opportunity Christensen’s offense brings him. It’s a lot less blocking, he said, and a lot more running.
“I feel like I’m getting skinnier just running all these routes,” he joked.
Meanwhile, Tonga — a Spring, Texas, native who went on an LDS mission after high school and will turn 26 this year — said that whether he’s asked to block or receive, he’s just thankful for another chance to shine.
“It’s easy to not take things for granted when you’ve had it taken away from you once.”