KNOXVILLE — Most of the coaches on Tennessee's football staff enter this season feeling better about the personnel at their disposal than at this time a year ago.
None of them feel as differently as tight ends coach Mark Elder probably does.
Thanks to a couple of new additions and some players returning from injury, the Volunteers believe they'll be much better at tight end this season after the position was invisible in 2013, and that's a positive development for an offense that has used it heavily in the past.
"There's a lot of talent in our room," freshman Daniel Helm said.
That was missing last season, and Elder, who also coordinates Tennessee's special teams, knows he has a deeper, more athletic group than he did last year.
Preseason injuries to converted defensive lineman Joseph Ayres and walk-on Alex Ellis, a 6-foot-2, 240-pounder from Delaware, left the 2013 Vols with Brendan Downs, who played through a knee injury all season, and true freshman A.J. Branisel.
That duo combined to catch just 15 passes for 98 yards one year after Mychal Rivera, albeit in a different scheme, broke Jason Witten's single-season receiving yards record by a tight end with a 36-catch, 562-yard, five-touchdown season.
"I think all the guys are doing a great job right now of upgrading themselves," freshman Ethan Wolf said. "Definitely me and Daniel are hoping to help add on to the position. We've got some guys back from injury last year.
"Alex Ellis, Brendan Downs and A.J. are all fully healthy now, so we're doing a great job in the weight room and on the field to bring the position back."
The Tennessee coaches made upgrading the position a priority and tapped into their Midwestern roots by landing early commitments from Wolf, an Ohio resident who received offers from Alabama and a few Big Ten programs, and Helm, the top-ranked tight end in the 2014 class per Rivals.com, out of Illinois.
"Coach [Butch] Jones was very straightforward about how the tight end is a very influential part in his offense, as well as Coach Elder," Helm said. "I wanted to be able to catch the ball and play early, and this provided an opportunity where I can maybe do both. I was excited about it."
In Jones' final season coaching at Cincinnati in 2012, tight end Travis Kelce was the team's leading receiver and wound up being a third-round pick (63rd overall) of the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2013 NFL draft.
Tennessee showed both targets highlights of how they used Kelce.
"They talked a lot about how they used to use the tight end and how they want to use it here," Wolf said. "I saw bits and pieces of it last. They just didn't have very many tight ends to work with due to injuries. Last year they had a rough year for injuries. They talked a lot about it, and I'm fired up to see what we do this year.
"I loved the way they use the tight end position," the 6-4, 248-pounder added, "and I hope that we can provide the assets for them to do that again."
The Vols now have the assets, though two of them are freshmen and Ellis has never played in a college game.
Wolf is a powerful blocker and a smooth receiver, and Helm spent played receiver and safety in high school. Ellis has long, lanky arms, and Elder said he would have "played a large role for us last year" if not for a foot injury. Downs and Branisel are experienced options.
"We're a much deeper group," Elder said. "We're much deeper than certainly it looked going into game one, when we lost Alex last year [and] A.J. wasn't quite ready yet.
"Having much more depth there has been big, and it's allowed us to get into multiple-tight-end sets and feel much more confident that that's something we can do on a consistent basis, not just a need basis."
Wolf and Helm took nearly all of the practice repetitions in the spring with Downs coming off knee surgery and Branisel recovering from a torn ACL, and it quickly became clear the two freshmen upgraded Tennessee's talent level at tight end.
"Ethan's a good player for us right now, and I think he's got a great upside," Elder said. "I'm not big into all the [prospect rating] stars and all that type of stuff. We watch all the guys that are going to be playing at this level of football in the country and felt very confident Ethan Wolf would be successful here, and early.
"We felt very confident recruiting Daniel that he would be successful here and early, and I feel just as strong about both of those guys now as I did watching their video a year ago. I think both of these young men are going to have tremendous careers. Both of them are going to play an integral part of our offense this year.
"Brendan Downs [will] do a nice job this year. I think he's going to play his best ball as a senior. Alex Ellis is going to have a nice year for us."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...