A smirk emerged on Ben Utecht’s face when the question came up – almost as if he’d been waiting all year to hear it.
So Ben, how would you evaluate the first 10 games of your 2003 season?
The smirk quickly grew into a bright smile when Utecht finally got the chance to answer.
“I’m happy with my season so far,” Utecht said. “It’s been the best blocking season I’ve ever had.”
He knew it wasn’t the predictable answer. The question on the minds of many Minnesota fans this season has been: “What happened to the Ben Utecht that amassed nearly 800 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns the last two seasons?”
For everyone out there who shares that sentiment, Utecht’s teammates and coaches assure you he’s still there – he’s just been hiding deep beneath the stat sheet.
Utecht hasn’t had the type of season that was expected of a preseason All-American named to the John Mackey Award watch list as one of the best tight ends in the country.
And yet, he couldn’t be happier about it.
“I’ve always talked to my coaches about using me the best way they can,” Utecht said. “When we’re running for 400 yards against teams like Michigan, I really believe that they are.”
The Gophers fifth-year senior has caught just 17 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns this season, but his contribution to Minnesota’s offensive success is hard to overstate.
Because Utecht is known throughout the Big Ten as one of the best at his position, he is regularly double-teamed in passing situations. That leaves wide receivers Aaron
Hosack and Jared Ellerson in single coverage much of the time. Both Hosack (530 yards, eight touchdowns) and Ellerson (682, five touchdowns) are reaping the benefits in the form of career seasons.
“(Utecht’s) role has always been a very important one,” Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. “If he’s not getting the ball a lot in the game, he’s definitely distracting defenders, and he’s great at that.
“You hate to see a tight end as good as him not get the ball as much, but when defenses go against him they have to put two or three guys against him. Defensive coordinators understand that.”
Utecht’s presence on the field has been even more beneficial to a Minnesota rushing attack that averages better than 300 yards per game, second best in the nation.
After working out for NFL scouts last spring, Utecht committed himself to improving in the area in which he received the weakest marks – his blocking. Over the summer, he refined his technique and gained 10 pounds, increasing his weight to 255.
The results don’t often show up on the final game statistics, but Utecht’s blocking has been effective enough that his name could be used as a footnote under Minnesota’s rushing stats.
“He’s a big reason why we’re rushing the ball for 300 yards a game,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “A guy said to me the other day, ‘Utecht didn’t play very much, he only caught one pass.’ Well, what do you think he was doing the other 80 plays he was in there? He’s working his tail off.”
It’s been a rare sight this season to see Utecht blowing past an overmatched linebacker on a seam route down the middle of the field. But once in a while, he’ll flash the natural talent that allowed him be a wide receiver, an all-state punter, a hockey goalie and long jumper in high school.
Late in the second quarter last Saturday against the Hoosiers was one of those times. Utecht adjusted nicely to a pass thrown behind him and made an acrobatic touchdown catch in the back of the end zone.
“I’m still getting opportunities,” Utecht said. “I’m a receiving tight end at heart. I love catching the ball, but more importantly, I love doing what the team needs.
“I don’t want to be the guy who sits here and complains. This is an awesome running team, and that’s a role I’m fine with playing.”
Utecht enjoys his expanded role as a blocker so much that he now considers himself as much an offensive lineman as a tight end.
It’s not a position that gets a lot of glamour, but Utecht knows as a blocker he’s contributing more than ever to the one statistic that matters most: wins.
“That says a lot about Ben,” co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Mitch Browning said.
“Those guys never get their name mentioned unless they get beat or if they have a penalty. They never get the credit they deserve. It’s the ultimate team position.”
It’s been a pleasant experience for Browning to see firsthand the willingness of such a versatile athlete to do whatever it takes to help the team win, but he stopped short of saying he was surprised.
“Ben’s a team player,” Browning said. “To be honest with you, we weren’t expecting anything less.”