Tennessee preseason preview: Tight ends

Tennessee preseason preview: Tight ends

July 26th, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College
Ethan Wolf (82) lines up for a play. The University of Tennessee Orange/White Spring Football Game was held at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on April 16, 2016.

Ethan Wolf (82) lines up for a play....

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

By the numbers

46: Receptions in 25 career games for junior Ethan Wolf. In only three games the past two seasons did Wolf not catch a pass. His lone game without a catch in 2015 was against Vanderbilt.

13.1: Yards-per-catch average for Wolf in 2015. Among Vols with double-digit receptions, only wide receiver Josh Smith (13.3) recorded a higher average. Wolf was particularly effective on passes over the middle of the field.

14.7: Career yards-per-reception average for Jason Croom, who moved from wide receiver to tight end this offseason. Croom caught 39 passes for 574 yards and six touchdowns in 2013 and 2014. He missed last season with a knee injury.

8: Receptions last season by No. 2 tight end Alex Ellis. Three of those were in the Outback Bowl. Production from that spot should increase with Croom’s addition to the position.

0: Career receptions for the tight ends on Tennessee’s roster not named Ethan Wolf or Jason Croom.

STAR POWER

Though he ranked seventh among SEC tight ends in receiving last season, Ethan Wolf has been a steady and reliable producer for Tennessee's offense the past two seasons.

The 6-foot-6, 245-pounder from Ohio has 46 catches for 513 yards and a couple of touchdowns while missing only one game and failing to catch a pass in only three. You could argue Tennessee has underused Wolf given how open he was on most of his receptions last season. He averaged 13 yards per catch.

Earlier this offseason Wolf stated his goal of going from a good player to a great player and admitted he was operating with a greater "sense of urgency" going into his junior season. What results will the approach produce?

PROMISING PROSPECT

Most fifth-year seniors don't fit this category, but Jason Croom does in this case.

The jumbo wide receiver finally made the position switch to tight end that always seemed about to happen. Croom began practicing at his new position during spring practice, but the origins of the move date back to last October. While switching positions Croom has asserted himself as a vocal team leader.

With the size and strength of a tight end and the athletic ability of a wideout, the 6-5, 250-pound Croom is a matchup problem for opposing defenses, provided Tennessee's coaching staff puts him in positions where he can outrun linebackers and body up defensive backs.

In addition to settling into his new position, Croom simply will have to shake off some rust after his long injury layoff, but he's both hungry to get back and help the Vols and driven to make the most of his final season.

FRESH FACES

There's a new tight ends coach in Larry Scott, the former Miami interim head coach who also pitches in on special teams. Scott already has shown his recruiting prowess in his native Florida, where he's helped the Vols snag some 2016 signees and 2017 commitments. Reviews from players and coaches of Scott's energy and teaching style have been positive, too.

UT signed two tight ends, Austin Pope and Devante Brooks.

Pope played wide receiver and H-back and caught 54 passes for 622 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior in Christian Academy of Knoxville's pass-happy offense. He's listed at 230 pounds, so adding weight and strength will be a focus for him. It will be interesting to see if Pope can carve out a role during the preseason.

Brooks hasn't played football in two seasons after tearing an ACL twice, and whether he'll be cleared to participate in preseason practices is unclear.

STRONG SUITS

The Vols are neither overwhelmingly spectacular nor extraordinarily deep at tight end, but Wolf and Croom give Tennessee two solid, reliable veterans. There are a combined 85 receptions and plenty of experience between the duo. Both will provide excellent examples to younger teammates about how to approach practices and preseason preparations.

QUESTION MARKS

Depth is a glaring concern, and though his production was modest, Alex Ellis, now in training camp with the Tennessee Titans, was a player on whom the Vols could depend, particularly in their two-tight-end sets.

While Croom has been productive, that was at receiver and he's playing tight end for the first time. Can he hold up as a blocker against defensive ends and linebackers? Tight end is a complicated position with its role in both the passing game and run schemes, and it will require Croom to adjust quickly.

Beyond Wolf and Croom it's a mystery.

Jakob Johnson, a converted linebacker in his second season on offense, and veteran walk-on Joe Stocstill will compete for time as the No. 3 tight end. Pope and Eli Wolf, Ethan's younger brother, need to get stronger to find playing time. Health is obviously the issue with Brooks.

Finding depth must be a preseason goal for Tennessee.

Email Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.


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