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Vols to be without veteran tight end for foreseeable future

Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

Tennessee senior tight end Austin Pope won’t be seeing the football field anytime soon, Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt revealed Thursday afternoon following practice.

“Austin is not going to play right now,” Pruitt told reporters on a Zoom call.

Pruitt previously said earlier in fall camp that Pope was ahead of schedule as the Knoxville native worked back from offseason back surgery. Pope announced 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 at the time 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. Redshirt freshman Jackson Lowe entered the transfer portal on Wednesday, leaving redshirt junior Princeton Fant, redshirt sophomore Jacob Warren and redshirt freshman Sean Brown in competition for the job. Redshirt senior Jordan Allen switched to the position in the spring as well.

“The tight end position, we are working several guys there and it is a competitive spot,” Pruitt said Thursday. “There is not much difference in the guys. How they go about their business every day, how they practice and compete, what kind of habits they have created. They control it. We want to play the best players. We have got some guys that are competing hard there to do that.”

“Most of those guys have played very little football for us. They have to work on their consistency. They have to be able to block in the C-area. They have to play fast. They have to be good communicators. That is one position you really need to be instinctive, to have a feel. We ask the tight ends to do a lot.. Somebody has to separate themselves.”

Tennessee’s season opener is just over a week away. The Vols will begin year three under Jeremy Pruitt against South Carolina in Columbia. Kick off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

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