Downs has upside

He looks like the young Luke Stocker, and Tennessee's coaches are hoping that someday he'll play like the older Luke Stocker.

At 6-6 and 230 pounds, freshman tight end Brendan Downs closely resembles Stocker when he was a 6-6, 235-pound freshman in 2006. Stocker eventually bulked up to 253 pounds and developed into a standout player. He caught 39 passes as a Vol senior last fall and is projected to be among the first three tight ends picked in the NFL Draft later this month.

When Tennessee signed Downs last December its coaches envisioned the Bristol product developing into a Stocker-type player.

"That's kind of what we're hoping," tight ends coach Eric Russell said. "He's got a good mind. When things slow down for him a little bit, I think we'll get a better feel for where Brandon is but we're hoping he's that kind of guy."

Stocker redshirted his first year at Tennessee because the 2006 Vols were blessed with two quality tight ends - Chris Brown and Brad Cottam. Downs appears unlikely to redshirt in Year 1 for two reasons:

One, the 2011 Vols do not have a player of the Brown/Cottam caliber at tight end.

Two, with the benefit of spring practice, Downs should be much farther along at the start of the 2011 season than Stocker was at the start of the 2006 season.

For now, though, Downs is a typical freshman - his head spinning as he tries to cope with the overwhelming mental and physical challenges of college football.

"He's swimming right now," Russell said with a laugh. "He's lost but it (learning) is coming a lot faster than it was (last December) during three days of bowl practice."

Downs is so slender that he looks like a wide receiver on the practice field. Still, he exhibits the toughness and aggressiveness to excel as an in-line blocker someday.

"He's competitive, physical," Russell said. "He comes off with a flat back (while blocking) probably better than any of the other ones. His targets aren't always right, though, and he's swimming in terms of learning formations and motions and routes."

Although Vol tight ends typically do far more blocking than pass receiving, their role is critical in head coach Derek Dooley's running attack. Downs is just beginning to discover this.

"He's got to learn how important this job is, how important the tight end position is in the history of Tennessee football," Russell said. "Brandon's got to understand that there's a lot more time he's got to put in off the field - whether it's catching extra balls or studying the thing.

"He can't get by now (as he did in high school) just because he's bigger and faster."

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