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Utah football: Utes in good hands with tight ends

Published August 21, 2013 11:21 pm

Murphy, Tonga will likely both see a lot of playing time this year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As Jake Murphy pushed his daughter's stroller out of Rice-Eccles Stadium following a recent practice, he likened fatherhood to his role on Utah's football team.

"She's like a football: She wiggles, but you have to catch her," he said.

Apparently little 6-month-old Remi has made her dad one heck of a football player.

Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson believes Murphy and Westlee Tonga, both of whom are 6-foot-4, 252 pounds, are the best tight end tandem with which he has worked.

That qualification is saying a lot, given Erickson's long history of college and pro experience.

"Both of them are outstanding," he said. "We still need to develop a third, but those two are going to play a big part of our offense. We are going to run a lot of two tight end sets."

Murphy was already one of the Utes' better options as he was second on the team with 33 catches and third in receiving yards with 349 yards last year.

Tonga, meanwhile, had a limited role and made just four catches for 39 yards and a touchdown.

If things go as planned, under Erickson's guidance he could equal that output in a game this year.

"The thing that makes us good is our diversity," Tonga said. "Jake has great hands and niftiness and I'm kind of a jack of all trades. We're going to be good."

Erickson believes the two are going to be too good to leave one sidelined and plans to use both extensively.

"Our best personnel group, we're going to be in a lot of two tight end sets and move Wes around a lot," he said. "The defense is going to see two tight ends and probably guess we are going to run, which we are, but we think we can have good matchups, particularly if backers are on them."

This is where their large frames come into play. The Utes believe the duo will be too good for linebackers to cover them and their frames are too big for safeties to match up well.

"As a defensive coordinator, two tight ends gives you a lot of possibilities," Whittingham said. "It gives you a lot of things you can do because of the matchup issues. They present big problems."

While Tonga is an emerging star, Murphy too has improved his game, particularly in his blocking. That deficit made him a liability at times in the past, but it is improving, Erickson said.

"He knows what he has to do and he is real conscientious about it," Erickson said. "He knows what his strengths and weaknesses are. It's easy to talk about strengths, but it is the guys who can evaluate their weaknesses who get better, and he has done that."

Both players have worked hard in the offseason to get faster too, as they realized last year they needed more speed to compete in the Pac-12.

Their new frames, plus new, rejuvenated outlooks with Erickson's plans, bode well for the Utes.

"We want to be leaders and help this team," Murphy said. "The biggest thing is not being negative in crucial situations and just being there and keeping the focus where it needs to be. Hopefully we are going to have a good year."

With Murphy and Tonga, like Remi, it appears the Utes are in good hands.

lwodraska@sltrib.com

Camp Corner

What we learned • Cornerback is still a "work in progress," due to injuries and youth, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

What the Utes have • Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson said he hasn't had four running backs who he believed could play at the Pac-12 level like he has at Utah.

What is next • The Utes continue their game prep for Utah State, which includes a lot of prepping for USU quarterback Chuckie Keeton.