KNOXVILLE -- Before last season's opener, Ben Bartholomew had played in seven games in three seasons at Tennessee.
Now the unheralded fifth-year senior is a valuable glue guy for the Volunteers' offense.
The 6-foot-2, 252-pounder from Nashville doubles as Tennessee's first fullback and second tight end and showed his versatility in the Vols' opening win against North Carolina State.
"The fullback's real natural to me, but the tight end gets opportunities like I did Friday," he said after Tennessee's indoor practice on a rainy Monday morning. "Tight end was exciting, and I've got to continue my work at that to try to be the best I can be."
Though he caught six passes in 2011, Bartholomew made two catches in a different manner against N.C. State. Instead of grabbing them out of the backfield, he ran a crossing route and hauled in a 13-yard pass from quarterback Tyler Bray in the second quarter. His 6-yard reception on a hitch route kept alive a third-quarter drive that ended in Tennessee's fourth touchdown.
When Cameron Clear was dismissed in the summer and Brendan Downs went down in training camp with a dislocated kneecap, Bartholomew became a much more important figure for Tennessee's offense. With starter Mychal Rivera still not 100 percent recovered from an August knee sprain, the Vols had to manage the senior against the Wolfpack.
Bartholomew's presence, along with offensive lineman Alex Bullard lining up as a tight end in unbalanced-line formations, kept Tennessee from overplaying Rivera.
"[Bartholomew] became an even bigger piece to the puzzle with our tight end situation getting how it was," coach Derek Dooley said. "We needed him to play, and he did. It helped us.
"Mych missed a lot of camp coming off the knee, and we were really worried about him going out there and trying to get 60 or 70 snaps. We had a plan not to play Mych a lot, and Mych didn't like it very much. It was just important that we don't go and say, 'OK, you're good,' and get 70 snaps and he gets hurt."
Bartholomew's impact was greater than health-saver. In addition to his two catches, he had two key blocks. One allowed receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to reach the second level on his 67-yard touchdown dash, and the other paved the way for tailback Marlin Lane's 42-yard run that set up a field goal.
"We talked about it all the time after the game [and] today, just telling him thank you for all that," Patterson said. "He's very important. Bart, he's a good person, and every day he comes with energy, just ready to practice, and just being here, he brings excitement to the team."
Until last season, Bartholomew basically was an afterthought. He played just twice as a freshman in 2008, most of his action in five games in 2009 was on special teams and injuries forced him to redshirt Dooley's first season in 2010. Yet he emerged at the beginning of last season when he took the starting fullback job away from Channing Fugate and eventually started seven games.
"I was focused on my own game, and I said, 'I've got two years left, I'm going to give it to the Lord and play the best I can for him,'" he said.
Bartholomew is a third-generation Vol. His grandfather, Sam, was a captain of Tennessee's 1939 Southeastern Conference championship team, and his older brother, Will, played on the 1998 national-title team and captained the talented 2001 bunch. Now Ben is trying to put a stamp on his own Tennessee career.
"I've played fullback and tight end throughout my different years and switched back and forth," he said. "I think a lot of the experience at both has helped out a lot, and I think I'm versatile to be able to play both now. I think it's helping [our offense] out a lot."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.