KNOXVILLE -- With Tennessee nearing the start of spring practice in less than a week, the Times Free Press is taking a position-by-position look at the Volunteers as they return to the practice field to continue preparations for the 2015 season, Butch Jones's third as coach. After beginning with the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, the preview continues today with the tight ends and Thursday with the offensive line.
* Ethan Wolf (So.): The first true freshman to start the season opener at tight end in Tennessee history, Wolf played through a knee injury he suffered in the second game, caught at least one pass in 10 of the 12 games he played and finished with 23 receptions for 212 yards.
* Alex Ellis (R-Sr.): Finally healthy after missing 2013 with an injury, the former high school quarterback and lacrosse player from Delaware developed into a nice piece last season and earned a scholarship for his fifth year. His six catches came in four straight games midway through the season, one being the fake-field-goal touchdown against Missouri.
* A.J. Branisel (R-So.): The torn ACL Branisel suffered late during his freshman season cost him to miss all of last season, but he's back healthy and should be in the mix for playing time after appearing in 10 games in 2013.
* Neiko Creamer (R-Fr.): After signing as a jumbo wide receiver and starting his career at linebacker, Creamer spent most of his redshirt season working at tight end.
* After a freshman season in which he started twice, appeared in 12 games and caught six passes, Daniel Helm transferred to Duke.
* Brendan Downs and Woody Quinn were seniors last season. Downs, who played in every game last season, was never the same after suffering a knee injury before his sophomore season and finished his career with 19 catches in 43 career games. Quinn failed to make an impact after transferring in from junior college in 2013.
* Tennessee signed Kyle Oliver, a three-star prospect out of Murfreesboro, and invited walk-on Eli Wolf, the younger brother of Ethan who set single-season records at Minster High School in Ohio with 74 catches and 1,319 yards as a senoir and owns the school's career records for receptions (124), yards (2,234) and touchdown catches (27).
DID YOU KNOW?
In 2013, tight ends combined for just 98 yards on 15 catches for the Vols, with Downs and Branisel the only two players at the position to record a reception. Wolf had matched that number by himself midway through last season, and the Vols got 36 catches from their tight ends in 2014.
What's the ceiling for Ethan Wolf? It didn't take long for the freshman from Ohio to impress Tennessee's coaches, and he backed that up with a productive debut year that included an injury scare in September. He gives the Vols another quality target in the passing game.
Jason Witten, a player Wolf pretty much idolizes, is the standard at tight end for Tennessee, but the Vols have had a good recent run at the position. Brad Cottom was an NFL third-round pick in 2008, Luke Stocker went in the fourth round in 2011 and Mychal Rivera has been solid for the Oakland Raiders since they drafted him in the sixth round in 2013.
It's too soon to know if Wolf will follow a similar path, but he's certainly one of Tennessee's handful of talented young players with promising futures.
ONE TO WATCH
With the Vols looking to sort out the tight end spot beyond Wolf and Ellis, it's an important spring for Neiko Creamer, the son of former Tennessee defensive back and punt returner Andre Creamer.
When Neiko Creamer enrolled early last year, he was announced as a wide receiver, and he began spring practice at linebacker before moving to tight end, where he spent last season practicing and learning the position. At 6-foot-3, Creamer has the size, frame and athletic ability to play the spot. With many tight ends, it's about developing physicality, though.
Creamer is an intriguing prospect at the position, but with the two players ahead of him, the more experienced Branisel back healthy and what's coming in -- Tennessee has a 2016 commitment from Devante Brooks, the nation's No. 4 tight end according to Rivals.com -- he'll need to show the coaching staff that tight end is his long-term position.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.