KNOXVILLE -- Inconsistencies and injuries notwithstanding, Tennessee tight ends Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker represent one of the Volunteers' most experienced position tandems.
Stocker, a fourth-year junior from Kentucky, has started 12 times in 26 appearances, catching 17 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown.
Cottam, a fifth-year senior from the Memphis area, has started eight times in 35 appearances, catching four passes for 19 yards and a touchdown.
Those aren't particularly impressive numbers, especially for two players highly regarded by former coach Phillip Fulmer's staff. Yet whether new Vols coach Lane Kiffin sees that same potential or simply a pass-catching need, the two have been Sharpied in to this season's playbook.
"We've really pushed Luke and Jeff," Kiffin said after Tuesday's practice. "They're in a competition for the starting spot, and both of them have done some things extremely well."
Kiffin and his staff broke down video from Monday's two practices and discovered that Cottam and Stocker played at least 90 snaps in full-contact team periods. It wasn't surprising that training-room sessions delayed post-practice interviews with the tight ends by nearly 30 minutes.
"Monday ... we just kept practicing them, kept really pushing them, because for us to be successful, they're going to need to play a ton, I think," Kiffin said. "We need to make sure they're used to that now, and they're responding extremely well."
Those reps have been predictably diverse for one of the game's most complex positions. Stocker and Cottam are essentially offensive tackles, wide receivers and fullbacks rolled into one, and their three-part knowledge of Kiffin's and coordinator Jim Chaney's system will be vital for the Vols.
"Obviously, this a new offense for everybody, but we do have a spring ahead of those new guys coming in," Stocker said. "It's expected of me and Jeff both to know our assignments, and our routes, and to make sure we don't have any missed assignments, so if (others) do, we're in the right place at the right time and the quarterback has someone to go to."
Chaney particularly would like to see the quarterbacks throw to the tight ends -- and not just because he's a rare coordinator who coaches tight ends.
"It's pretty simple: You use what you think will work," Chaney said. "If you do what you're supposed to do and take advantage or your opportunities in practice, then you should do the same thing in a game."
Stocker and Cottam were interviewed separately but had nearly identical answers when asked how much this offense would feature tight ends.
"It's going to be as big of a factor as we make it, really," Cottam said. "The opportunities are there for us to make plays, so we've got to go out and make them."
Said Stocker: "It is what the tight end can make it. The opportunities are there for us to make plays, and it's up to us to do it. That's all you can ask for as a player, and they are giving us opportunities we can take right now."
Coaches classified the not-so-twin towers -- Cottam is 6-foot-8 and stockier than the 6-6, more-mobile Stocker -- as separate but equal players with versatility.
"It's not like either of them is a tight end that's just a run guy or a pass guy," Kiffin said. "Both are very multiple in what they can do."
Stocker is more a natural receiver, but Cottam isn't simply a sure-handed offensive tackle. Cottam can be a punishing force in the running game, but Stocker's blocking results are gradually nearing the effort coaches have consistently seen.
"Obviously, we're still going to be out run-blocking and all of that, but I think we're going to make a lot of big catches this year, too," Cottam said. "I think we'll be a big part of the passing game."
Stocker was equally optimistic.
"I know we can do it, but it's up to us to go out there and prove it," he said.