The final statistics for Tennessee tight ends in 2013 were less than stellar. The loss of Mychal Rivera meant a huge loss in production from the previous year, in which Rivera alone hauled in 36 catches for 562 yards and five touchdowns from his tight end position.
Vol tight ends managed only 15 receptions for 98 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Early in fall camp, however, the position looks to be among the most improved units on the team. The additions of freshmen Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, along with the return of a healthy A.J. Branisel and Brendan Downs, have turned the position into one that is full of potential – and competition.
“There’s a lot more competition this year, which is a great thing,” said tight ends coach Mark Elder. “Last year, down the stretch, there was very little competition for time on the field at the tight end position. Now, guys are chomping at the bit. They all want to get on the field and they know that every rep that they take matters and that’s been a great thing for us.”
Wolf and Helm were each able to enroll early and participate in spring practice where even as 17-year-olds, fresh out of high school, they were able to make their presence known on the field. They were frequently praised by Butch Jones for their talent and work ethic, and they repeatedly treated onlookers to ‘highlight reel’ catches. That time in the spring – and a now full summer spent in the weight room – looks to be time well spent for the freshmen according to Elder.
“Things are going well for those guys. When you look at Daniel, the transformation of his body over the summer was big. He looks much bigger. He’s put on a lot of good muscle.
“Ethan has really redistributed his weight a little bit. He’s about the same weight as he was before, but you can see he’s losing a little bit of fat and gaining some muscle in the right areas. Both of those guys had a really good summer. You can tell that the weight work has done a ton for those guys.
“Today being the first day in pads, we haven’t had a ton of physicality yet, but you can see that those guys have a little more pop and a little more drive in their legs.”
While Wolf and Helm have certainly garnered a lot of attention and praise for their efforts thus far, their coach was quick to point out that he will be relying on all of his tight ends to make an impact this season – not just the freshmen.
“We are expecting the tight end to be a big part of the offense, it always has been for us. We use them as blockers and we used them as receivers, so we are expecting a lot out of those guys, not just Ethan and Daniel but the other guys as well.”
When asked about what he had in mind for what the position would look like on the field this year, Elder said that versatility was the only thing guaranteed.
“We don’t have tight ends that are simply ‘big receivers.’ We’re going to ask our guys to do a lot of things. Part of that is going to be flexed out as a receiver and run darn near every route that all those receivers are running. But we’re also going to line them up next to the tackle, and we are going to expect them to base-block a defensive end – and win – every single time.
“So, we are asking a lot of those guys, but they’ve really done a great job.”
On a team that is certainly young, but also extremely talented at the skill positions, the emergence of a playmaker or two at tight end could really tip the scales in the offense’s favor in certain situations. In an offense that predicates itself on creating and exploiting mismatches, the tight end position offers a lot of flexibility to do so provided you have the players who can execute.
Through three practices, Elder and his squad are focused on working hard to give this team that added dimension.