Gone: Joseph Ayres (Graduation), Justin Meredith (Medical Hardship)
Returning: Brendan Downs (SR), A.J. Branisel (SO), Woody Quinn (SR), Alex Ellis (RS JR), TE/HB/FB Joe Stocstill (RS SO)
Newcomers: Ethan Wolf (FR), Daniel Helm (FR)
Tight end might’ve been the worst position on the field in 2013 – it was, at times, virtually non-existent from a production standpoint. In total, the Vols got less than 100 yards of total offense from their tight ends combined for the entire season.
Not that the Vols were overflowing with talent in the first place, but injuries knocked out Joseph Ayres, Justin Meredith and walk-on Alex Ellis out for the season. Brendan Downs limped around with a bum knee for much of the year as well, but, with the Vols limited on options, he battled on and played at less than 100 percent all season, albeit at a lower level than what the Vols needed. He got that cleaned up in the offseason and missed all of spring practice.
Freshman A.J. Branisel had a couple clutch catches, but went down with a torn ACL late in the season. He won’t be full go immediately and it might be a touch ambitious to hope for him to contribute early in 2014 as his rehabs wraps up.
The Woody Quinn experiment never really got off the ground. The former college volleyball player and JUCO transfer was nothing but an occasional role player. A full year of SEC-level strength and conditioning will help, but don’t expect significant contribution from him at this point.
That leaves the Vols with Downs and Branisel on the mend and an eye towards the future. That future could be bright with newcomers Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm. Both enrolled early and showed signs of why they might be more than the future – they could be UT’s present at the position as well. Both bring size and athleticism not currently seen on the roster at this position.
Wolf is a polished blocker who has a build similar to an undersized offensive tackle. Helm showed versatility, comfortably splitting out in the slot or working as an in-line blocker. With the returning troops depleted, the freshman duo got extensive work with the starters in the spring – a spot they might become familiar with quickly.
Tight ends coach Mark Elder on Ethan Wolf:
“We like what he brings to the table. He can do everything that we need him to do as far as lining up as a tight end or off the ball at the H-back position or flexing out as a receiver and going out and being a play-maker out there as well. I really like what I see from him in those regards. I think that he’ll be successful in every aspect of our offense.”
By the numbers
• Brendan Downs: (UT career) 18 catches for 143 yards, 3 TD
• A.J Branisel: (UT career) 3 catches for 28 yards, TD
• Daniel Helm: (SR season at Glenwood HS): 35 catches, 565 yards, 13 TDs
• Ethan Wolf: (SR season at Minster HS): 41 catches, 475 yards, 5 TDs
Projected initial depth chart
Wolf, Helm and Downs are the main names to watch at this spot, at least initially. It’ll be interesting to see what a 100-percent healthy Downs looks like and if he’s made any strides over the summer.
Because if he hasn’t, look for the newcomers to take the bulk of the snaps. Branisel will provide depth when healthy with Ellis and Quinn needing to have a huge fall camp to get deeper into the race. Walk-on Joe Stocstill could see the field in some situational work at some combination of fullback, H-back or tight end.
Don’t expect either of the true freshmen to redshirt this year. There’s too much needed talent and athleticism there. If they do step up and some of the other veterans progress, Branisel could be somebody they explore that option with. If all goes well he should be able to contribute in 2014, though why rush it if they have other options they feel comfortable with?