SALT LAKE CITY — Tight ends haven't been targeted much in Utah's offense.
Last season, the position accounted for just nine catches and 103 yards. A meager contribution considering the Utes finished with a total 245 receptions for 2,980 yards through the air.
Things began to change, however, in Utah's 37-27 win over California in the Poinsettia Bowl. Tight end Kendrick Moeai doubled his receptions total over the first 12 games with a pair of touchdown catches in the first half.
The usage carried over into the Utes' first spring scrimmage. Moeai hauled in a 9-yard scoring strike from quarterback Jordan Wynn.
Of the 31 passes completed last Friday, five were caught by tight ends. Moeai and Westlee Tonga each made two while Brad Clifford had one.
"The tight end is becoming more and more prevalent in our offense, and that's a trend that will continue," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "We think we're going to have a strong group of tight ends this fall."
The cast includes Moeai (6-5, 236), Tonga (6-4, 225), Clifford (6-4, 248) and returning LDS Church missionary Dallin Rogers (6-4, 230). Tonga and Rogers are freshmen. Moeai is a sophomore and Clifford a senior.
"For a few years, we were pretty lean at tight end," Whittingham said. "Now we've built those numbers back up and those players are doing a good job."
And the Utes plan to capitalize on it.
"They're big targets. They provide some mismatch opportunities for our offense on opposing defenses," Whittingham said. "It just gives you some flexibility that you don't have in the four-wide sets."
It's all tied to production, he added, and if the tight ends continue to produce, they'll be a big part of the offense this season.
Moeai acknowledges the prospect has everyone motivated.
"I couldn't be happier," he said while noting that the position group is working hard to play a bigger role in the offense.
Moeai and Clifford have been pushing each other for a couple of years now and share a mutual respect. They come to practice each day determined to show what they've got.
As the current front-runner on the depth chart, Moeai is making the most of the opportunity.
"When you go from not doing anything at all to coming up and doing as many reps as I started getting at the end of the year, you just start busting your butt harder in practice and just keep pushing," he explained.
It's an ongoing process, however.
Whittingham isn't quite ready to say the two-touchdown performance in the Poinsettia Bowl was a coming-out party for Moeai and his abilities.
"We'll find out. We've known he's a good athlete. He's continued to add size and strength to his frame," Whittingham said. "Now he's to the point where he looks like a Division I tight end. He runs very well."