Few football coaches appreciate quality tight-end play more than Butch Jones, and with good reason.
As Cincinnati’s head man in 2012 he saw tight end Travis Kelce lead the Bearcats in receptions (45), receiving yards (722) and receiving touchdowns (8). Kelce also posted the longest pass play of the season (83 yards), and his 16.0 yards-per-catch average was tops on the team among players with at least five receptions. His production was a key reason Cincinnati averaged 32 points per game en route to a 9-4 record.
Imagine how frustrated Jones must have been as Tennessee’s head coach a year later, when all of the tight ends combined for just 15 receptions, 98 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. This glaring lack of production was a key reason Tennessee averaged a mere 23.8 points per game en route to a 5-7 record.
One of football’s oldest clichés holds that a quality tight end is a young quarterback’s best friend. That being the case, Joshua Dobbs must have felt friendless when he was thrust into the Vols’ QB job last October because Big Orange tight ends did not make a single catch in his first three appearances – a 45-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama, a 31-3 loss at No. 10 Missouri and a 55-23 loss to No. 7 Auburn.
The fact Tennessee surrendered an average of 43.7 points in those three games indicates the defenders were far more responsible than the tight ends for those lopsided setbacks. Still, getting a few plays from the tight-end position might have kept the scores more respectable. In fact, the 5-7 record easily could’ve been 7-5 with a few more plays from tight ends Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel.
Slowed by injuries, Downs caught just 12 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. The numbers are even worse when you look at SEC play – six catches, 28 yards, zero touchdowns. Branisel caught three passes for 28 yards. The 28 yards came on one catch against Georgia. His other two receptions went for a two-yard gain against South Alabama and a two-yard loss against Austin Peay.
With Downs back for his senior year and Branisel returning for his sophomore year, you wonder: Will the tight end position be any more productive in 2014 than it was in 2013? The answer: Yes. Downs and Branisel should be a year better but the biggest key is the addition of Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm. Both were listed among America’s top five tight-end prospects by Scout last fall. Both enrolled at mid-term and participated in spring practice. Both got plenty of practice reps with Downs and Branisel sidelined all spring. Both showed great potential.
Wolf, a 6-foot-5, 243-pounder, already has the heft to play major-college football.
Helm, a 6-foot-4, 232-pounder, could use more bulk to withstand the rigors of SEC football.
“He's gone out and made some plays in the passing game, and he'll fight you as far as blocking,” Elder said. “He just needs to be a little more physical at the point of attack.”
Ideally, Wolf would play a backup role in 2014 and Helm would redshirt while adding weight and strength. Tennessee’s glaring need at the tight end position won’t permit either of those scenarios, however. Most likely, both will be seeing a lot of action this fall … just as they did last spring.
“We're throwing those guys in the fire,” Elder said, “and they're going to learn by executing, not by sitting back and watching it.”
The tight end has a much tougher job than most fans probably realize. He must block like an offensive tackle in the ground game but run routes and catch like a receiver in the pass game. He must be capable of splitting out wide and sometimes lining up at fullback. He must be strong enough to block 260-pound defensive ends, agile enough to track down 230-pound linebackers and quick enough to beat 190-pound safeties one on one.
Expecting Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm to fill all of these roles as mere freshmen is asking a lot. If Tennessee’s offense is to be truly versatile, however, it’s a challenge they must meet.
See video of Helm and Wolf during their first spring in Knoxville by clicking play below: