Let’s continue the series with a look at the Tennessee tight ends depth chart exiting spring with a prediction of what to expect this September.
Spring practice — like most all the springs before of the Butch Jones era — didn’t tell us much. But after what we saw and read, we can make some prognostications about what we may see, or at least expect to see, once fall practice starts. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I’m going to break down position-by-position what we saw, what we read and what I’ve heard about to project who’s gonna play where come opening weekend against Georgia Tech.
We’ll continue this series with our look at the Tight Ends.
Back when Butch Jones took over at Tennessee, one thing that we all expected from the jump was that the tight end would be a huge part of the offense. In my mind, I saw an NFL-style scheme with players catching the football, blocking the edge and the offense centering around dynamic mismatches like Jones had with Travis Kelce at Cincinnati.
His tenure thus far at Tennessee has been anything but.
That’s why this group enters 2017 with so much untapped potential — and that includes senior Ethan Wolf, who looks like the ultimate player at the position but has yet to live up to the expectations many heaped on him four years ago when he stepped in at UT and got starting reps immediately. The tight end position was under-utilized with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback and Mike DeBord calling plays. Hopefully, all that changes with Larry Scott.
You’d think it would. After all, Scott was UT’s tight ends coach, and he understands the value in using the big man on the edge as a target for your quarterback. Either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano would benefit from Wolf [or somebody else] emerging at the position.
It all starts with Wolf, a 6’6″ senior from Minster, Ohio, who was a huge coup for Jones four years ago, choosing the Vols over a bunch of impressive offers. After UT got him to commit, Alabama and others came calling, but Wolf stayed strong. While he’s enjoyed a stellar career, there haven’t been any glimpses of his idol, Jason Witten, in his play, and that’s what a lot of us hoped for when we saw him get immediate playing time.
In three years, he’s totaled 67 catches for 752 yards and just four touchdowns. That’s not even averaging two catches per game. It’s hard to say that’s disappointing, but it isn’t up to Wolf’s capability. For UT’s offense to be better, he must be better. The promotion of Scott gave Wolf visions of what his role potentially could be in his final season on Rocky Top.
“I shot him a text to say congrats on the promotion and made a little joke about (getting) 10 targets a game or something like that,” Wolf told then-Chattanooga Times-Free Press and current GoVols247 reporter Patrick Brown during spring practice. “I was extremely happy for him, because he’s a guy that wants to succeed in everything that he does. He wants to get to the absolute pinnacle he can of his job
“He turned down the head coaching job at Miami to come here, and for him to be able to take that step up to the offensive coordinator, I think he’s going to succeed tremendously at it. We’re going to have a very explosive year this year offensively.”
If that’s going to happen, UT needs Wolf to be an all-around force at tight end, catching and blocking. Beyond him, it’s anybody’s guess who’ll fill the role for the Vols. Teams need more than one tight end, and if the Vols are to be multiple with different sets, they need able bodies. Last year, Jason Croom moved from wide receiver and did OK, but he’s gone to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills on a free agent contract. Now, the Vols have a handful of unproven commodities.
Starting with the other senior on the list, Jakob Johnson bounced around from linebacker to defensive end to tight end in his career, and the latter position seems to suit him OK. Though Johnson is never going to be a dynamic target, he is a good, physical blocker on the edge and could carve himself a role, especially in short-yardage situations.
After Devante Brooks moved over from tight end to offensive tackle, the Vols still have talent at receiving tight ends. Redshirt sophomore Eli Wolf is a walk-on brother of Ethan who could have a good year for UT, and redshirt freshman Austin Pope is a local product who had a lot of good offers out of Christian Academy of Knoxville. If he gets more physical this year, he could be the breakout player of the position. This spring, the younger Wolf got a lot of reps, and he will be a guy who gets on the field and makes some plays for the Vols in 2017.
The biggest upside guys, though, are the youngsters. Pope is 6’4″, 230 pounds and extremely athletic, but he isn’t as physical as he needs to be yet to play the position. With an offseason in Rock Gullickson’s strength & conditioning program, he could really see his career take off. Though he won’t start the year as the second tight end, he’s a strong bet to seize that role as the season progresses.
UT also went out and signed two tight ends in the 2017 recruiting class that flew a bit under-the-radar. That starts with instate talent LaTrell Bumphus, a 6’4″, 240-pound athlete from Hardin County who was offered by schools such as Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Georgia as a weak-side defensive end. Though he may wind up playing on that side of the ball for the Vols, UT told him it would give him his first crack at tight end. If Bumphus could stick there, he’ll be an extremely impressive weapon for Scott to mold. The other player in the ’17 class taken by the Vols is James Brown, a 6’3″, 221-pound tight end from Jones High School in Orlando who had very few offers when UT pulled the trigger. His only other decent offers came from South Florida and Marshall, so if he hits, he’ll definitely be a diamond find for Robert Gillespie. The former high school quarterback is only now transitioning to the position and dealt with offseason labrum surgery.
According to VolQuest’s Jesse Simonton, Brown’s position switch led to a flurry of interest, however.
“[Brown] switched from quarterback to tight end midway through his senior season. He played just a handful of games at the position, recording 10 catches for 176 yards and four touchdowns. Following the release of a mini-highlight tape, Brown immediately heard from several SEC schools, including Tennessee, which ultimately offered him a scholarship late one Sunday night. About half an hour later, Brown called Scott back and committed on the spot.”
Also in that Brown article by Simonton, the player stressed Scott told him the Vols were going to use the tight end in the passing game, and he saw evidence of that in the spring game with a scoring strike to Wolf. “Before we got there, (Scott) kept on stressing to me, ‘We throw it to them. We throw it to the tight ends,’” Brown said. “Then when we got to the spring game, the tight ends caught touchdowns, so I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ I know how to catch. They’re not blocking. They’re receivers. They’re catching the football.”
The Vols need a lot of that when the season starts.
First team: Ethan Wolf, Second Team: Eli Wolf, Third Team: Austin Pope. Jakob Johnson, LaTrell Bumphus, James Brown