Breakout Vols: tight end

This is the fourth in a series of articles examining possible "breakout" players for Tennessee's 2012 football team. Today's installment focuses on the tight end position.

The spring arrest and subsequent dismissal of massive tight end prospect Cameron Clear caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Big Orange Country. That's understandable.

Clear's imposing 6-foot-6, 275-pound frame had fans salivating at the thought of him clearing a path on running plays and creating his own path on underneath routes. His departure did not leave Tennessee's cupboard bare behind first-team tight end Mychal Rivera, however.

Brendan Downs may boast less body mass than Clear but he boasts more versatility. At 6 feet 5 and 251 pounds, Downs is nearly identical in size to former Vol tight end Luke Stocker, a 6-foot-5, 253-pounder who caught 12 passes as an NFL rookie for Tampa Bay last winter. Blessed with similar skills in terms of route running and stretching the field, Downs could become the Vols' next Stocker.

"That's kind of what we're hoping," former Vol tight ends coach Eric Russell said in 2011.

Developing another Stocker would be a real plus for the Vols, since Stocker was a fourth-round NFL Draft pick in 2011 after catching 39 passes as a Vol senior in the fall of 2010.

Whether he becomes another Stocker remains to be seen but Downs has made steady progress since joining the Big Orange as a mid-term enrollee 17 months ago. The Bristol native performed so well in spring practice and preseason camp that he earned a spot in the tight end rotation by the 2011 opener. Downs recorded two catches for 32 yards in Game 2 versus Cincinnati and started Game 4 versus Buffalo in a two-tight end set. He finished his freshman season with three catches for 34 yards. Classmate Clear, by comparison, had one catch for four yards.

Downs posted better numbers this spring, as well, reeling in four passes for 51 yards in the Orange & White Game. Clear dropped the only pass thrown in his direction.

In addition to good speed and good hands, Downs is a technically sound blocker with a good head for the game. Russell once described him as a "bright kid" who "runs well and is physical."

Because of his imposing size, Clear tended to overshadow Downs whenever Tennessee's young tight ends were discussed. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney fought this tendency by routinely answering questions about Clear with comments about both players. A perfect example is this quote given near the end of spring practice:

"We're excited about Downs, too. We feel we've got two young ones in that class that could play anywhere in the country. We're pleased to death to have 'em with us."

Although the Vols no longer have Clear, they still have a potential breakout player at tight end. Don't be surprised if Brendan Downs stirs fond memories of Luke Stocker this fall.

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