Right now, it’s uncertain whether or not the 2020 football season will be played as planned. But we’re moving ahead and providing our position preview series ahead of the start of Tennessee’s fall camp as if things will proceed as normal. After taking a look at the offensive line and defensive line positions, we take a look at the Vols’ tight ends next.
Seniors: Austin Pope (RS), Jordan Allen (RS)
Juniors: Princeton Fant (RS)
Sophomores: Jacob Warren (RS)
Freshmen: Jackson Lowe (RS), Sean Brown (RS), Hunter Salmon (RS)
Fighting an uphill battle
Joe Osovet was promoted to tight ends coach in February after spending his first two seasons at Tennessee in an off-the-field role on Jeremy Pruitt’s staff. He served as the Vols’ Director of Player Development in 2018 and the Director of Football Programming in 2019 prior to being named tight ends coach.
Osovet was the head coach at ASA (N.Y.) College prior to his arrival at Tennessee. ASA (N.Y.) College was Osovet’s last stop during a 22-year run as a junior college coach. Osovet established himself as one of the best coaches in JUCO football as he coached 11 NFL players and developed 47 NCAA Division I players.
Following Brian Niedermeyer’s move to the defensive side of the ball, Osovet will have his work cut out for him in year one as Tennessee’s tight ends coach. Osovet must replace last year’s starter in Dominick Wood-Anderson following the two-year starter’s graduation. It doesn’t stop there, however. Osovet will also be without last year’s No. 2 tight end for a significant chunk of the 2020 season.
Redshirt senior Austin Pope had back surgery in mid-July to repair a herniated disc. Pope was expected to be the starting tight end this fall, but this is the latest of bad injury luck for the Knoxville native. He previously missed part of UT’s offseason a year ago after having the same surgery on the other side of his back. He also dealt with a partially torn hamstring during the 2019 season.
Wood-Anderson was the clear starter last season, but by the end of the year, Pope proved just as valuable due to his physical blocking prowess. Although Pope caught just four passes for 21 yards, he was instrumental in the run game. He saw 276 run-blocking snaps according to Pro Football Focus, which is more snaps than he’d seen in any regard his first two seasons (201) with the Vols.
Redshirt junior Princeton Fant will get the first crack at replacing Pope. Fant redshirted in 2017 as a running back and practiced in the backfield for much of 2018 before moving to tight end towards the end of his redshirt freshman season. Last year, Fant remained at the tight end position where he appeared in eight games as a reserve and finished with two catches on the season. Fant caught a 19-yard pass against Tennessee-Chattanooga for his first career reception before hauling in a pass against South Carolina.
Fant has the athletic ability to be a playmaker in the SEC. But he must stay healthy and be more consistent. If he can do that, Fant will definitely lessen the blow of losing Pope for 8-12 weeks. If the season is delayed, the loss of Pope may not feel as bad, but even in that scenario, Fant stepping up alongside Pope would be huge for Jim Chaney’s offense.
Time to step up
Jacob Warren, Jackson Lowe and Sean Brown all have a golden opportunity along with Fant. While the three were likely going to battle it out during fall camp for the No. 3 tight end position, each will be competing for both the backup and No. 3 spot in the room.
Warren is the most gifted pass-catcher out of the bunch. Hailing from nearby Farragut, Tennessee, the son of former Vol James Warren has spent his first three seasons on campus focusing on adding weight. At 6-foot-6, he’s now up to 244 lbs. according to Tennessee’s roster and is positioned to finally make an impact. Warren played in five games last season and caught one pass, the first of his career.
Lowe and Brown spent all of last year redshirting as true freshman. The pair of redshirt freshman may still have a bit of ways to go before they’re completely ready to contribute at this level, but time isn’t on their time. Tennessee needs them to contribute now. Brown played in two games last season, while Lowe did not see the field.
Newcomers to watch
Tennessee didn’t sign any tight ends in this past year’s recruiting class. But the Vols still have a newcomer to the tight end room, and that player is the x-factor at the position. Jordan Allen signed with the Vols out of junior college as an edge rusher two off-seasons ago and is making the switch to tight end.
Allen only has two practices under his belt at his new position, as he made the switch from the defensive side of the ball prior to spring practice. Tennessee was forced to cancel spring practice after just two practices due to COVID-19. Allen was a four-star prospect coming out of the Community College of San Francisco in the class of 2018. As a redshirt sophomore in ’18, Allen appeared in nine games as a reserve outside linebacker and on special teams. He made six tackles. Allen did not see the field in 2019 due to a hip injury.
There’s no guarantee Allen will have an impact at tight end this season as he hasn’t played the position at this level. Any production from Allen will serve as a bonus to the Vols’ offense.