Tight end Utecht redefines position for Gophers

Brian Stensaas

W– John Madden inducting tight end Dave Casper into the NFL Hall of Fame, Aug. 3, 2002

when Ben Utecht showed up for the second morning of two-a-days during August of 2000, he got a lot more than grueling conditioning drills in the summer heat. Utecht, a redshirt freshman expecting to continue his wide receiver drills, was given a different hat to wear.

Utecht bulked up to 230 pounds and the coaches had decided to try him at tight end.

Two seasons later, Utecht has gone from project to All-America candidate. But the junior admits to a rough transition.

“It was a completely different world,” said Utecht, a junior now weighing in at a robust 250 pounds. “You never really talked to the offensive linemen. They’re the big burly guys deep down you’re kind of scared of. Man, I was nervous. I didn’t know the technique.”

Much to Utecht’s pleasure, his new linemen welcomed him on board right away. Since Utecht started playing football in fourth grade, he caught on quickly to his new position.

If football were academics, Utecht would no doubt be a Rhodes Scholar.

“He’s a student of the game who is extremely intense, a hard worker and has high standards for himself,” Minnesota tight ends coach Mitch Browning said. “What you see is what you get. He’s not moody; you push him and he’ll do it.”

Though Utecht came to Minnesota as a wide receiver, he’s revolutionizing the tight end position. Utecht’s 6-foot-6 frame and sub-4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash have resulted in more attention from his quarterbacks.

In 1999, while Utecht toiled as a redshirt freshman, Minnesota tight ends caught 11 balls for 189 yards and zero touchdowns. After three games this season, Utecht leads the team with 13 receptions for 206 yards and five scores. He’s scored in five straight games dating back to last season.

His determination to excel at tight end has paid off. But he knows there’s more to learn.

“The minute you think you know everything is the minute you fall,” Utecht said. “I try to gain knowledge at every position. It can only help.”

His receiving and blocking ability combined with his work ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Football News tabbed Utecht as a pre-season All-American while the Sporting News and Athlon both penciled him in for preseason all-Big Ten honors.

Minnesota coach Glen Mason believes Utecht is one of if not the best tight end in the country.

Browning thinks Utecht probably wouldn’t be held in the same light had he stayed at wide receiver. But he definitely shares Mason’s belief.

“There’s not a lot of guys this day and age who do well in the blocking game and the passing game,” Browning said. “Being a tight end is a combination of those, though. And that’s the type of player Ben Utecht can be, should be and must be for us to be successful.”

Already the question of whether or not he will return for his senior season has been proposed to Utecht. While one childhood dream was accomplished the second he inked his name to be a Minnesota player, the more lofty desire appears to be within reach. He wants to play in the NFL.

“It’s a scary question,” Utecht said. “If the opportunity is given to me after this year and the moment is right, it might be something I think about. If pro football is the plan that was mapped out for me, I’ll embrace it and be the best tight end I can. But right now my focus is on this team.”

And pitching in any way possible, even if it’s unexpected.