With sophomore Cameron Clear dismissed from the program, sophomore second-teamer Brendan Downs out for weeks with a bum knee and freshman Justin Meredith still slowed by a hamstring injury suffered last spring, the Vols are left with one mostly healthy tight end — senior first-teamer Mychal Rivera. Senior Ben Bartholomew, the No. 1 fullback, can help at tight end in a pinch ... and the Vols definitely are in a pinch.
Depth at the position is so thin that Tennessee switched three defensive players to tight end. Junior Joseph Ayres (6-feet-3, 280 pounds) came over from defensive tackle, while Greg King (6-2, 239) and Justin King (6-3, 230) moved over from linebacker.
"Obviously, they're different body types," Coiner said, "and they're coming from different positions. With Justin, you see a guy with experience playing linebacker, so that guy typically in a 3-4 is playing right over the top of our guy (tight end), so he understands that position a little bit. The body type is one we think we can move around — play on the line, off the line and different things. He brings some smarts to the game with him and, we think, some toughness. We'll see. He's right out of the gate right now."
"Joe Ayres allows us to have someone who's got some physicality playing the position that we're desperately in need," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "Joe's unselfishness in moving over is a big plus for our team. That's what we preach to our team — whatever we need to do as an individual we need to do it, and he's done that. Now how far he's going to advance we don't know yet. We just moved him there, so I can't tell you where it's going yet."
Mid-term freshman enrollee Meredith (6-5, 223) remains an unknown quantity, as well. He has scarcely practiced since enrolling last January.
"He's got a unique deal with the hamstring right now," Coiner said. "You don't want to set him back two months. We got him this far; we'll get him back. It's hard on him, hard on us. We'd like to have him out there but right now it's more important to make sure he's completely healthy before we get him on the field."
Fortunately for the Vols, the three guys who have some tight end experience are dependable. It all starts with Rivera (6-4, 245), who is exhibiting considerable leadership heading into his senior season.
"He's been through a lot of learning curve and a lot of growing," Coiner said. "I've been amazed since January 27 when I got hired.... I see it happening on a daily and weekly basis. I saw it happening over the summer. That's what this stuff is all about. You mature as a player but you grow up as a person, too, when you learn how to handle yourself."
Sophomore Downs (6-5, 255) capped a strong spring by catching four balls for 51 yards in the Orange & White Game. He appears to be a capable backup.
At 6-feet 2 and 251 pounds, Bartholomew lacks the height teams prefer at tight end but he is a determined blocker who has the respect of his fellow Vols.
"Ben's like Mike when it comes to the leadership deal," Coiner said. "Maybe Justin King needs something and I'm working with Joe, so I'll tell them, 'Take him over and coach him.' That's what you need. I think they see a little bit of themselves in the younger guys. They put their arms around 'em and help 'em."
Although Tennessee's tight end depth is thin, Coiner saw worse during his days as an assistant in the pros.
"Back to the NFL experience, I've been tight end coach where we had one," he recalled. "What you do is you go in with that guy and you have a plan to go 10 personnel (one tight end) if that happens.
"And I've been just the opposite — where you have a receiver go down and you have to go 22 or 13 personnel, where you use two or three tight ends. That's the one thing Jim Chaney, Coach (Derek) Dooley and myself have done: You learn to coach what you have. I wish I had 'em all but you learn to get it done with what you have."
See what Coiner had to say on video after Tuesday's practice: