Jake Jackson’s first thought when he got news of a position change last summer was “oh crap.”
Utes linebackers coach Justin Ena came up to Jackson — who was going into his redshirt sophomore season — in the cafeteria and told him they wanted him to change positions. Jackson didn’t know tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham had identified him as a guy he wanted to play the role offensive coordinator Troy Taylor envisioned for the tight end position at Utah.
Taylor’s spread offense places emphasis on the passing game and having multiple receiving options, and for the tight end to be versatile enough to contribute in the running game as a blocker and athletic enough to create mismatches in the passing attack.
“I’d had my eyes on Jake because I knew he had played the position in high school, and also sometimes in pre-practice drills he’d come over with us and catch some balls,” Whittingham said. “I saw some soft hands and some athleticism, and he was a little bit buried on the depth chart at linebacker.”
Jackson earned all-star recognition as a tight end at La Costa Canyon (Calif.) High, and racked up nearly 800 receiving yards combined between his junior and senior seasons.
The 6-foot-3, 237-pound Jackson is the projected starter at tight end with co-starters Harrison Handley and Siale Fakailoatonga having finished their careers. A year at the position has bolstered Jackson’s confidence.
Jackson played in all 13 games last season, including a start against Colorado after a season-long 39-yard reception set up a go-ahead touchdown run by Tyler Huntley in the fourth quarter of a last-minute loss at Washington.
“I kind of got the feel for it,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’m better at tight end than I was a linebacker, and I’ve kind of found my niche. It’s worked out really well.”
Jackson, who served an LDS Church mission prior to joining the program in January 2015, described the techniques from linebacker to tight as “completely opposite.” He’s no stranger to contact as a former linebacker, but on defense he could use his hands to grab and deliver the blow. On offense he’s got to be able to hold his ground against a bull rush, and be able to withstand the momentum of a defensive player attempting to run through him.
“I definitely need to work on my blocking,” Jackson said. “I’m not as big as I want to be. Receiving, splitting me out is working well. Going against the safeties who I’m bigger than is just naturally easier than blocking a 300-pounder. It is what is, but I’m working on blocking a lot. It’s a struggle sometimes.”
Jackson caught three passes for 46 yards last season. Taylor said this spring he’d like to see more production out of the tight ends in the passing game, and expressed encouragement in what the group had done early in spring practices.
The Utes made a push to target that position in recruiting this year. Three members of the signing class will enter as tight ends: former rugby player Thomas Yassmin from Australia, high school dual-threat running back Brant Kuithe from Texas and returned missionary Cole Fotheringham from California.
Whittingham sees Jackson as having only scratched the surface of what he can be. He said Jackson has gotten better in every aspect of the position, and he’s physically gifted enough to be the threat in the passing game the offense demands. Whittingham loves the speed element Jackson adds to the position with his ability to run past linebackers on seam routes and create separation.
“He’s an athletic kid. He’s got soft hands. He’s got good speed,” Whittingham said. “He’s a natural in the passing game. We’ve needed to work on the run blocking technique, but he continues to get better. He’s not the biggest tight end in the league. He’s 6-3, 240 pounds. I expect him to be a major contributor and help us win some football games this fall.”