If you look close enough while walking around Haslam Practice Field this August, Tennessee’s tight end group will stand out.
Not because the group looks full of playmakers or like a major weakness this fall but because they’re such a small group it seems like it would be drill work for a 13-scholarship basketball team and not a 85-scholarship— though Tennessee isn’t near that number— football team.
Senior Austin Pope medically retiring this summer exposed the failures of Jeremy Pruitt to recruit tight ends.
Behind seniors Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant— both Butch Jones signees— Tennessee has just three scholarship tight ends, all incoming freshmen.
One of those freshmen tight ends, Julian Nixon, was a high school receiver. After Nixon tore his ACL in high school, the big receiver never fully regained his quickness. With Josh Heupel’s need for tight ends, the 6-foot-3 receiver making the move made too much sense.
“Julian has done a pretty good job of learning,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “When I say pretty good, he has never blocked a soul in his life. He’s also never weighed 257 pounds, so there’s such a growth process. He’s the ultimate needs a year to get his butt whooped in the weight room, to wake up early and go through the grind of what college football is and should be, play on the scout team (to) learn (and) grow.”
While earning serious playing time on the field this fall seems unlikely for Nixon, Tennessee believes they’ve found him a home for the long haul.
“I do think this is a home for him,” Heupel said. “In high school, he played on the outside a lot but he’s fairly new to playing inside the box. He is a smart kid and is learning how to compete consistently. He is a natural pass catcher and he’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
Tennessee’s other freshman tight end, Miles Campbell, has more experience playing the position than Nixon and has the build to earn snaps this fall.
Still, Campbell’s first fall camp in Knoxville hasn’t been without adversity for the 6-foot-3, 240 pound tight end.
“Miles was sick early in camp and lost some weight, (he) has bounced back and tried to recover from that,” Golesh said. “My hope is still that Miles helps this year at some point. I would say right this second, he’s fighting and battling to be in the rotation, but my hope is by middle of the year – which I said early on, I have never played a freshman tight end, ever, and I’ve been coaching for a while, never done it. … My hope is we still get Miles to that point.”
Golesh is Tennessee’s tight end coach on top of its offensive coordinator so the 37-year old knows the challenges of playing the position as a freshman.
Still, Campbell is directly behind Warren and Fant on the depth chart and one injury could expedite the Douglasville, Georgia native’s path to the field.
For Golesh, it’s about continuing to push Campbell to his potential as the freshman adjusts to college life on and off the field.
“I think mentally he’s capable, I think physically he’s willing and capable,” Golesh said. “I think we forget sometimes (with) freshmen – class has started, there’s obvious distractions now going on. It’s figuring out, what is a game week? We talked about this as a normal game week for us – well he’s got tutoring, he’s got class, football, got to watch film on his own, got to learn, got to grow, got to figure out the game plan. There’s a lot going on for a young man, for an 18-year-old. That’s not an excuse for him, it’s just going to take him a second to put it all together to be able to line up on a Saturday at noon and play. My hope is still that he can play this fall for us and help us, I just don’t know how early that’ll be in the season.”
With just five scholarship tight ends on the roster, Tennessee’s two freshmen are necessary this season for depth. In the long term, however, Heupel and his staff see two weapons who can be high-level SEC players.