Whether the Utes have transitioned fully into a passing team or simply become more balanced than the past, the “throw game” as coach Kyle Whittingham calls it has become more prominent than recent years.
That has not extended to the tight end position so far. Utah senior co-starters Harrison Handley and Siale Fakailoatonga have combined for one catch, 5 yards and a whole lot of blocking through the first four games. Sophomore Jake Jackson, a converted linebacker, has the only other reception by a tight end this season.
Coming out of the off week, will the tight end position take on a bigger role in this offense?
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“Hopefully,” Whittingham said. “What they did do in the Arizona game, they were good in the run blocking. That was their role in that game, and they embraced that role and took a big step forward blocking in the Arizona game.
“The bottom line is whatever they’re asked to do and whatever their role is for a particular week, they’ve got to excel at it. I think if they’re more involved in the throw game, then they’ve got to do a better job of getting open and giving Troy [Williams] confidence or Tyler [Huntley], as the case may be.”
The 6-foot-4, 257-pound Fakailoatonga missed last season due to a knee injury suffered in camp. He’s still looking for his first catch of this season, but remains optimistic.
“I think we’ve just kind of been getting a feel for the offense,” Fakailoatonga said. “I think it’s time for us to be contributing in the pass game a little bit more than we have been.”
Due to injuries, seniors Fakailoatonga and Handley weren’t at full speed as the offense got installed in the spring, and both also missed time in preseason camp. Fakailoatonga didn’t play in the first game of the season, and Handley’s status was questionable going into the opening week of the season.
“I think both of us coming back from injury, kind of easing into things, was the smartest thing to do,” Fakailoatonga said. “But I feel like we’re both at the point right now where we’re both ready to really contribute. I think physically and mentally we’re ready.”
Fakailoatonga had 10 catches for 120 yards and made at least one catch in each of the first six games before suffering a season-ending injury in 2015. Handley, a 6-5, 250-pound Draper resident, pulled in 12 receptions for 168 yards in 10 games last season.
“I think we definitely have the guys that have the experience and guys that have done it before,” Utes tight ends coach Fred Whittingham said. “Harrison Handley and Siale Fakailoatonga have both been productive in the passing game in their previous years here. They’re both fifth-year seniors. They know the offense. They’ve got the mental aspect down.”
Fred Whittingham said a lot of the lack of production early in the season also can be attributed to game planning to take advantage of what the defense is doing.
While the Utes have used many three and four wide receiver formations this season, offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said during the preseason he would like to have a versatile tight end on the field all the time. However, his offense is flexible enough where either a receiver or tight end easily can fit into the passing route concepts.
“I know I’m comfortable running any route that the receivers are running right now, a lot of seam routes down the middle,” Handley said before the Utes’ Pac-12 opener. “We’ll see what happens. As of right now, we’ll just do anything we can to help the team.”
UTES RECEIVING OPTIONS
Darren Carrington II • 30 catches, 485 yards, 4 TDs
Siaosi Wilson • 10 catches, 165 yards
Samson Nacua • 18 catches, 162 yards, 1 TD
Demari Simpkins • 7 catches, 77 yards
Raelon Singleton • 9 catches, 68 yards, 1 TD
Zack Moss • 9 catches, 65 yards
Troy McCormick • 11 catches, 59 yards
Kyle Fulks • 2 catches, 22 yards
Harrison Handley • 1 catch, 5 yards
Jake Jackson • 1 catch, 3 yards.