Tennessee starter on track to be ready for season-opener

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    Tennessee senior tight end Austin Pope is on track to play in the season-opener against South Carolina on Sept. 26, Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt revealed on Friday.

    Pope announced a little over a month ago on July 16 that he was recovering from back surgery to repair a herniated disc.

    “He’s been out (on the practice field) every day,” Pruitt told the media following Tennessee’s third practice of fall camp. “He continues to improve. If he continues to improve like he has the last five weeks, he should be ready to play for the opener.”

    Pope previously missed part of UT’s offseason a year ago after having surgery on his back. He’s been hampered by injuries for most of his Tennessee career, with the most recent injury before this current back issue being a partially torn hamstring during the 2019 season.

    “Sometimes life doesn’t always go the way we plan it,” Pope said in a post on Twitter. “I’ve had hard times and challenges in my life, so this is nothing new to me. I recently have been dealing with a lot of nerve pain coming from my low back. I went to get an MRI Monday morning and the results were not what I expected. Doc told me I herniated yet another disc in my back, this time being at L3L4.

    “I’ve been very down and disappointed because I already had back surgery two years ago for a different disc. I had surgery this morning and am recovering at home right now. I really would appreciate any support in these tough times. I love this game, my teammates, and my coaches and I will do anything to help this program succeed. Prayers would be appreciated. Minor setback for a major comeback.”

    The 6-foot-4, 235-pound tight end emerged as a key part of Tennessee’s offense last season as a run blocker. Pope played in all of UT’s 13 games and made 11 starts, totaling four catches for 21 yards through the air. His blocking ability proved invaluable, and he was used both as a tight end and H-back throughout the season.

    Pope joined the Vols in the 2016 class out of the Christian Academy of Knoxville and redshirted his freshman year. He appeared in nine games in the 2017 season and made one start, catching two passes for nine yards. As a redshirt junior in 2018, Pope played in 11 games and made two starts, catching a 55-yard reception against Florida.

    In his Tennessee career, Pope has appeared in 33 games and has totaled seven receptions for 85 yards.

    Outside of Pope, the Vols have very little returning experience at tight end for the 2020 season. Redshirt junior Princeton Fant has returned to the position, and redshirt sophomore Jacob Warren had one catch in five appearances last season. Both Jackson Lowe and Sean Brown redshirted last year as freshmen, and linebacker Jordan Allen switched to the position in the spring. Tennessee didn’t sign a true tight end in the 2020 class, though three-star athlete Dee Beckwith is thought to have some potential as a tight end in the future.