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2020 Spring Position Preview: Tight End

Photo via Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Our most recent piece looked at Tennessee’s offensive line. Up next is a look at the Vols’ tight ends.

Seniors: Austin Pope (RS)

Juniors: Princeton Fant (RS)

Sophomores: Jacob Warren (RS)

Freshmen: Jackson Lowe (RS), Sean Brown (RS), Hunter Salmon (RS)

No position on Tennessee’s roster is more unproven than the tight end position in 2020. Not only does the group lose its starter from the last two years, but it has a new position coach as well.

With Brian Niedermeyer moving to the defensive side of the ball to be the inside linebackers coach, Joe Osovet was tabbed Tennessee’s new tight ends coach. Osovet moves to an on-the-field role after spending his first two seasons in Knoxville as UT’s Director of Football Programming. He worked closely behind the scenes with Tennessee’s offense during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Prior to moving to Knoxville, Osovet was considered one of the best junior college coaches in the country. Osovet coached 11 NFL players and developed 47 NCAA Division I players as a JUCO head coach at ASA (N.Y.) College and Nassau (N.Y.) Community College, finishing with a combined record of 33-11 with two Northeast Football Conference Coach of the Year awards (2014 and 2017) and the 2014 USA Sports Writer JUCO Coach of the Year honor.

Now, Osovet is tasked with turning a relatively unproductive position over the first two seasons under Jeremy Pruitt into a productive one.

Tennessee loses two tights ends from last year’s group. Dominick Wood-Anderson departs after being the starter the previous two seasons, while former walk-on Andrew Craig decided not to return for a fifth-year.

Wood-Anderson ranked fourth on the Vols in 2019 with 21 catches for 268 yards. The former JUCO product averaged 12.8 yards per catch and caught one touchdown. He appeared in all 13 games and tallied seven starts.

Though Wood-Anderson was the clear starter for much of the year, Austin Pope played as big of a role in the offense because of his physical blocking prowess. Pope caught just four passes for 21 yards, but he was instrumental in the run the game. According to Pro Football Focus, Pope saw 276 run-blocking snaps, which was more snaps than he’d seen in his first two seasons (201) with the Vols combined.

Pope now appears to be the clear-cut starter at tight end heading into 2020. Though he’s been primarily used to run-block, the Knoxville native has the ability to be a pass-catching threat. Pope was regarded as an excellent pass-catcher coming out of high school, but he hasn’t had a chance to prove his ability due to injury and being used in a run-blocking role. With no other proven option on paper entering spring, it’s his job to lose.

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In addition to Pope taking the next step as a pass-catcher, Tennessee hopes that the redshirt freshmen duo of Sean Brown and Jackson Lowe can take a big step this offseason and factor into the rotation. As true freshmen last season, Brown only appeared in games against Tennessee-Chattanooga and Vanderbilt. Lowe did not appear in any games.

Either Brown or Lowe making a jump this spring would be a big development for Jim Chaney’s offense. Chaney loves to line up in 12 personnel (two tight end sets), so somebody is going to have to step up and play the role that Pope has played the previous two seasons. If Brown or Lowe can’t do that, it could be redshirt junior Princeton Fant who does.

Fant appeared in eight games last season and caught two passes for 19 yards. Entering spring practice, Fant will have plenty of opportunity to carve out a role considering the options behind him. The Nashville, Tennessee native has the athleticism to have an impact, but the question will be whether he can become a tight end who can block. Fant has bounced around from position-to-position quite a bit over the course of his career. Now that it appears he’s settled in on one position, Fant should take that next step.

Tennessee lacks pass-catching options at tight end, but redshirt sophomore Jacob Warren could develop into one. Warren was an excellent pass-catcher in high school at Farragut. He’s had to add weight and become stronger in the weight room, which has kept him off the field to this point. Entering his third season on campus, Warren should be ready to make an impact.

Osovet has as tall of a task as any coach on Tennessee’s coaching staff this spring and offseason. The options at tight end are limited with multiple developmental prospects in the room. It’s not as important for Osovet to develop pass-catchers as it is for the tight ends to be strong run-blockers this season. Pope will be a nice piece of the offense that leads the group, but depth needs to be developed behind him.

Four-star athlete Dee Beckwith will start out with the Vols’ wide receiver group when he arrives later this year, but there’s a chance he could eventually move to tight end as well.

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