KNOXVILLE -- In Butch Jones' final season coaching at Cincinnati, the team's leading receiver was a tight end.
That's been far from the case for the first-year Tennessee coach this season.
Through 10 games, tight ends Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel have combined for just 13 pass receptions for 90 yards for the Volunteers, who host Vanderbilt on Saturday night needing a win to keep their bowl hopes alive.
"I think we've been set back by a little bit just because of depth and injuries at the position," Jones said at his weekly news conference Monday. "The tight end, we've always wanted to have that be a weapon in our offense."
The Vols have gone to more five-wide-receiver sets offensively in recent weeks. Five receivers (Pig Howard, Marquez North, Josh Smith, Jason Croom and Johnathon Johnson) and tailback Rajion Neal all have more catches and yards than Downs, who caught touchdown passes in the season's first two games.
The 6-foot-5, 248-pound junior, who's not caught a pass in the last three games, hasn't been the same since suffering a dislocated kneecap in preseason practice last August, and his backups at the position are first-year Vols: freshman A.J. Branisel, who caught a 28-yard pass on fourth down against Georgia, and junior college transfer Woody Quinn, who last played in the game at Oregon.
In its 2014 class, Tennessee holds commitments from Glenwood (Ill.) High's Daniel Helm and Minster (Ohio) High's Ethan Wolf, two of the top 19 tight end prospects in the country according to 247sports.com.
Travis Kelce caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns to lead Cincinnati last season, while the Vols had their own weapon at the position in Mychal Rivera, who caught 36 passes for 562 yards, a single-season program record previously held by Jason Witten, and five touchdowns.
Rivera was drafted in the sixth round by the Oakland Raiders and registered his second touchdown catch as a rookie on Sunday. Kansas City selected Kelce in the third round.
"He was dynamic, but more so than that, his toughness, he brought a whole other level of toughness to our football team there," Jones said. "He was more involved in the run game, and prior to that we were more receiver-oriented. I think it's playing to the strengths of our football team.
"Right now we don't have a lot of depth at that position, but we're trying to create depth through the recruiting process at that spot."
After allowing a punt return and a kickoff return for touchdowns against Auburn, the Vols spent a lot of time last week addressing the breakdowns, but that doesn't mean wholesale personnel changes are on the way for those coverage units.
"The thing you don't want to do," Jones explained, "is have individuals that have taken those repetitions and trained for those positions all year long, and you panic, and you make wholesale changes and now you go out there and they haven't been through the nuances of playing that position in live game-speed repetitions.
"It's a balancing act, but on the flip side of it, you're always trying to find the best 11 to put on the field. It's an 11-man mission, so you're trying to find the best 11 to put on the football field to execute that assignment. It's been a balancing act."
Only three defensive starters -- safety LaDarrell McNeil, cornerback Justin Coleman and linebacker Dontavis Sapp -- played on those two units, but Jones said some of those defensive players already are playing too many snaps, and extra snaps on special teams only would add to the workload.
"It's where we're at in the program," Jones said. "I've said it, and I'm not going to hide it: We have zero depth. A.J. Johnson's playing too much, Dontavis Sapp's playing too much, but that's where we're at. How do you correct it? You recruit. That's the bottom line."
For many of the players on special teams, that's their only role and the only playing time they get.
"We're giving you a role to help this football team win. Now go do it," Jones said. "Up until the Auburn game, we've been pretty good on special teams. A lot of those individuals have played winning football for us on special teams."
Butch and the bye
In his coaching career, Jones is 9-1 in games following an open date, which includes Tennessee's upset of South Carolina last month, but the coach said there's not a single trick to that success rate.
"To me, no two bye weeks are ever the same," he said. "I think for me personally, I always step back and say, 'OK, what does this particular team need?' Our bye week at Cincinnati, or our bye week earlier in the year, may have been different than this bye week just based on what this football team needs."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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