KNOXVILLE - It's not a good time to play tight end for Tennessee.
The Volunteers lost another player at the already thin position during Friday night's scrimmage, when Brendan Downs sustained a patella dislocation. The sophomore was on crutches, hardly able to bend his left leg, during media and photo day Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Coach Derek Dooley said he expects Downs to return this season, but he doesn't know when.
"It was kind of a scary moment," Dooley said. "But it's kind of good news. He's going to be out [just] for a little while.
"We came into spring saying that's a strength. We had four guys, and now we're down to one. It's a problem."
Cameron Clear was Tennessee's second tight end behind Mychal Rivera entering the summer, but the sophomore was dismissed from the team in May following an arrest for felony theft. Freshman Justin Meredith has been unable to shake a nagging hamstring strain he suffered shortly before enrolling at Tennessee in January. Rivera has missed some of training camp with a knee sprain.
Even players the Vols have moved to the position have been injured. Converted defensive lineman Joseph Ayres has a sprained ankle. Other freshmen aren't options, as Justin King is focusing on learning fullback and receiver Jason Croom, who might have a future at the position at 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, is "on the shelf" with a hamstring injury, Dooley said.
Behind Rivera and Ben Bartholomew, the fifth-year senior who doubles as a fullback, Tennessee is out of options. Dooley admitted the Vols must create contingency plans.
"Nobody wants to move there anymore," he joked. "I went to [ask] three guys, and they said, '[Heck] no, I'm not going to tight end, look what y'all are doing to them.'
"We're going to have to scheme around it. We don't have any bodies. There's nobody left."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney did not seem alarmed about the situation.
"It's always entertaining to watch teams and how they adjust to that," he said. "As coaching staffs, you're constantly doing that. You're dealt a hand, and you've got to try to win with it. You might have a pair of twos in there.
"That's just what we do. They pay us to do that, so for us it's nothing new. The players have to be the ones who have to adjust so much and you hate it when it happens to any kid, but I think everybody will bounce back and be just fine."
Downs was a solid option behind Rivera, as the 6-5, 255-pound Bristol native had developed the physical effort to match his pass-catching abilities. He caught just three passes for 34 yards as a freshman, though he played in eight games with one start. His four-catch, 51-yard performance in the spring game served as a springboard into the summer.
Tennessee's freshman class has taken some early. In addition to Croom's ailment, linebacker Kenny Bynum likely is headed for a redshirt after tearing his meniscus, and tailback Davante Bourque's return from dealing with personal reasons is very unlikely at this moment.
Freshman receiver Alton Howard walked around Saturday without crutches or a walking boot, and Dooley guessed he would return from his July foot surgery in two weeks. By then, the Vols still may be figuring out their tight-end situation.
"Injuries are a hard thing to go through," Bartholomew said, "but Mychal and I have known from the beginning as the older guys in the room and lead the guys."
Bartholomew's double-duty strains the depth at fullback, too. Dooley indicated the Vols would have to "move some parts around" as they deal with Downs' absence and suggested roles for certain players. The Vols could go with more multiple-receiver sets or train an offensive lineman for short-yardage and goal-line packages.
Tennessee's offensive identity, though, might not be impacted that much.
"I'm not anticipating it much at all," Chaney said. "You go through training camp and try to develop an identity who you are, and then the first game you show your identity and you go play. You start heading down on a path. We're going down that path and we'll see where we'll end up."