KNOXVILLE - Ethan Wolf came to Tennessee as the less-heralded of the Volunteers' tandem of freshman tight ends.
It's not taken him long to reach the top of the position's pecking order, though.
After enrolling in January, Wolf took advantage of some injuries and his own ability to ascend to a first-team spot with Tennessee's offense, and he appears on track to maintain the spot in the early going of the Vols' preseason training camp.
"Obviously that was a goal," the 6-foot-5, 248-pound Wolf said after Saturday's practice. "Talking to Coach [Mark] Elder [in charge of tight ends] prior to us coming in, we knew that there was injuries at the tight end position, so we knew that we were going to be thrown into the fire in spring ball and getting as many reps as possible.
"Now we've got just about everybody back healthy, so the reps are getting divvied up between us all, and he's going to see who can perform. The best scenario would be us all being able to play at the same level and being able to sub and be a dominant force throughout the game with fresh bodies."
Though his scholarship offer list included Alabama, Wolf joined Tennessee's class last April as a run-of-the-mill three-star recruit. Daniel Helm, who committed two weeks later, was a consensus four-star prospect and ranked as the top tight end prospect by Rivals.com.
Tennessee coaches feel both will upgrade a position that sorely lacked production last season, and there's a high possibility both Wolf and Helm will play larger roles than senior Brendan Downs and sophomore A.J. Branisel, who's back after tearing his ACL late last season.
Downs and Branisel totaled 15 pass receptions for 98 yards in 2013, a season after tight end Travis Kelce led Butch Jones' Cincinnati team in catches and receiving yards.
"We need production from that position," Jones said. "We like to play with a tight end, but we'd also like to get into two-tight-end sets as well. Each individual in this group has their own strengths, but they're athletic, they're tough and they need to continue to stay in the weight room and get bigger.
"Ethan has the combination where he can be an attached tight end -- he can be a detached tight end out on the perimeter. He's really improved his blocking skills. He's benefited from spring football along with Daniel Helm. Those two individuals, I've been really, really pleased with so far."
Wolf changed his jersey number from No. 88 to No. 82 after working with Jason Witten when the former Tennessee and current Dallas Cowboys star came back to Knoxville this summer.
His biggest gains, though, came in spring practice, which set the foundation for his freshman season.
"It was extremely valuable, in terms of mentally and physically," he said. "Getting into the weight program in the winter was huge, just making the changes to your body necessary to play this year as a freshman. I wouldn't have rather done anything else than come in early and make the gains that I could have."
Nickel not new
Justin Coleman played cornerback during the first three years of his career, but he'll be manning the nickelback position this season as a senior.
It's a spot Tennessee's coaches feel best fit Coleman's abilities, and the player doesn't feel like it's that much of a new spot.
"I'm pretty confident in myself and helping the team," Coleman said. "I can make tackles, and I know my stuff. I won't make too many errors, and if I do, I can correct it immediately."
Sophomore Malik Foreman and freshmen Elliott Berry and Rashaan Gaulden also are working at the nickel spot.
Though the unit is dependent on a trio of sophomores and a couple of newcomers, Tennessee's most talented position likely is receiver, and the expectations are high for that group.
"I think we're going to be pretty dangerous," junior college transfer Von Pearson said. "I'm surprised we're not ranked at the top right now. I feel like everybody's going to bring something to the table and we're going to do our thing, so I think it's going to be nice."
After singling out freshman kicker Aaron Medley for making a game-winning kick late in Friday night's practice, Jones singled out freshman receiver Vic Wharton and sophomore Josh Smith on Saturday. "Vic Wharton continues to do things with the ball in his hands," he said. "Josh Smith looks healthy; he looks fast; he looks elusive." ... Tennessee still is awaiting word on receiver Cody Blanc's lower leg injury suffered Friday. ... Freshman defensive tackle Charles Mosley is back in Knoxville and around the team after breaking his tibia in a car accident last month, but Jones doesn't expect him to play this season. "He's always up," Jones added. "He's always positive. To be able to have him around our team is very good, good for him and good for our team as well."
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