Hastings grad makes fast impact at tight end

Graduation at Hastings High School in the spring of 1998 was a big day for the Minnesota town located on the banks of where the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers run together.
It was also an important day for the University, as five of the graduates were ready to travel up Highway 61 to Minneapolis and become Gophers the following September.
Five highly-touted athletes, ready to play three highly watched sports; all from the same graduating class.
The biggest name was Michael Bauer, an all-state basketball player. who was ready to throw on a jersey and hit the court at Williams Arena.
Bauer was followed by Jeff Taffe, Ben Tharp and Dan Welch, three highly-recruited hockey players coming off a runner-up finish in the state tournament.
And there was Ben Utecht, a tall (6-feet-6), skinny (220 pounds), wide receiver, who was perhaps the least known of the quintet.
But, as Utecht recalls, he was the first of the five to commit to Minnesota, and was anxious his friends would follow.
“Playing hockey with Dan, Ben, and Jeff, I knew they all wanted to come here. I was just hoping and praying it would work out for them like it did,” Utecht said.
“I didn’t know where Mike was going to go because he was just so talented at basketball, he had a number of schools that wanted to get him.”
At the time, everything worked out for the athletic group from Hastings, refereed to then as the “Gopher 5.” But since last summer things have gone like scenes from both “General Hospital” and “Saved By The Bell.”
The story begins with Utecht spraining his ankle on the first day of freshman practice last fall, forcing him to redshirt. Bauer then had the same problem and was forced to sit out last season with an ankle injury.
Welch, meanwhile, played one season of hockey, before leaving the University for a community college in Omaha, Neb., where he hopes to get his grades up and return to the Gophers.
Things weren’t going the way the people of Hastings dreamed for their “Gopher 5” heading into this school year.
Then came a bright spot at football practice late this summer. Coach Glen Mason decided to switch a now healthy Utecht from wide receiver to tight end. With Utecht’s speed, Mason felt he would be a perfect fit at the position.
“He’s one of those guys you don’t want to get caught flat-footed against because he’ll run right by ya,” Mason said. “And if he’s open and gets the ball, he can turn it into a big gain.”
Utecht proved Mason correct in the season-opening win against Louisiana-Monroe. On the first play of the second quarter, Utecht hauled in a 38-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq,
Utecht was just happy to get the opportunity to help his team.
“I didn’t now exactly the game plan, or what we were going to do,” he said. “I just wanted to go in there and play my hardest, and if I got a chance to catch the ball than I was going to be very thankful for that.”
After a memorable debut for Minnesota, Utecht still has work to do. At just 235 pounds Utecht doesn’t fit the mold of a normal tight end — Minnesota’s starting tight end last year, Alex Haas, weighed close to 270 — but that’s what gives him the speed (He runs a 4.7 second 40-yard dash).
And when lined up against a stronger, slower linebacker as opposed to a quick-footed defensive back, Utecht is able to break off the line and beat his defenders down field.
The transition wasn’t easy. Skepticism was the first word he used to describe the change. But he’s willing to make the necessary adjustments and is excited about his new role with the Gophers.
“Now I’m going to be in a bracket of one of the fastest tight ends,” Utecht said,.” I hope we can use that to our advantage.”
He’s not alone with that feeling. Junior wide receiver Ron Johnson said with Utecht at tight end, Minnesota’s offense has another weapon that might take opponents eyes off Johnson.
Last season’s tight ends had just 11 receptions for 189 yards and no touchdowns.
“He’s a threat,” Johnson said. “Being that he’s a on a linebacker, that’s a mismatch. We’ll utilize that.”
Still just a freshman, Utecht plans on eating and lifting his away to 250 pounds while retaining his speed.
Because Utecht’s speed is what makes him a standout, Mason said he should present problems to opposing defenses throughout the season.
“The guy can run awful fast and he’s a good athlete,” Mason said. “He’s a threat at that position.

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]