Touted tight end tandems
Interviewing freshman football players is a real treat … mostly because the rookies are liable to say just about anything.
Case in point: Tennessee’s Ethan Wolf (Minster, Ohio). Rated the No. 5 tight end in the Class of 2014 by Scout, he signed last winter with Tennessee, even though the Vols also had a commitment from Daniel Helm (Chatham, Illinois), rated Scout’s No. 3 tight end. When asked if having another elite tight end in the same signing class was a concern, Wolf shook his head.
“No,” he said. “They (Vol coaches) talked about 12 personnel (two-tight end sets) being a very viable option. And we talked about being the pre-prison Hernandez and Gronkowski combo.”
The reference, of course, is to Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who gave the New England Patriots the NFL’s premier tight-end duo until Hernandez was indicted on three murder charges last year. Wolf’s candid comment about combining with Helm to become the pre-prison Hernandez and Gronkowski combo was priceless.
Believe it or not, Wolf and Helm aren't the most heralded tight-end duo Tennessee ever signed in the same class. That distinction belongs to Mark Adams (Virginia Beach) and Von Reeves (Knoxville), who were ranked 1-2 at the position by one recruiting service when both signed with Johnny Majors in 1988.
Adams wound up catching 52 passes for 573 yards in his four years on The Hill. Reeves caught 50 for 443 but is perhaps better known for throwing a 47-yard touchdown pass against Steve Spurrier’s first Florida team in a glorious 45-3 beat-down of the Gators at Neyland Stadium in 1990.
Wolf will start Sunday night's opener against Utah State. Helm is bracketed second-team with junior Alex Ellis. Wolf and Helm may prove as productive as predecessors Adams and Reeves. Both are tall, tough, talented and team-oriented. Consider this quote from Helm about their relationship:
“We’re great friends but we’re also great competitors. We’re always going to be fighting each other to get more playing time. At the end of the day, though, I love to see him do well and he loves to see me do well.”
Wolf agrees that his friendship with Helm is beneficial to both.
“It helps a lot because we’re all going through the same struggles,” he said. “Both of us handle ‘em different ways. It’s nice to come together, talk about what’s going on.”
Wolf is further along in his development at this stage, a fact his classmate readily acknowledges.
“His skill set is a little more complete,” Helm said. “I need to develop into a better blocker, so they (coaches) are using me a little more in passing situations. I need to get where he’s at blocking-wise, so I can be that complete package they want.”
Helm says the hectic tempo makes Tennessee’s offense a blur compared to the pace his team played back in Chatham.
“My high school team was a huddle offense, a slow pace,” he said, smugly adding: “I wasn’t dying every single play.”
Truly a consolation ‘prize’
Some guys bask in the limelight, while others seem forever relegated to the background. Tennessee junior Johnathon Johnson is a prime example of the latter.
The 5-foot-8 wide receiver got no offers coming out of Friendswood (Texas) High School two years ago, so he enrolled in Blinn College, where he was totally overshadowed by heralded Kameel Jackson. In fact, Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni was recruiting Jackson when he noticed Johnson.
“Coach Z (Azzanni) came to recruit my roommate and noticed me on film,” Johnson recalled. “They offered me on the phone, so I committed right away.”
The more heralded Jackson committed to the Vols, too, but never made his way to Knoxville. That makes Johnathon Johnson something of a consolation prize … emphasis on prize. Though overshadowed by Tennessee receivers Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Jason Croom, the unheralded Johnson got a bunch of first-team repetitions in preseason and projects to play a lot this fall.
“I like it that way; I like being under the radar,” he said. “That’s the kind of dude I was coming out of high school. It really puts a chip on my shoulder and makes me work that much harder.”
Flying under the radar sounds like a low-pressure win/win situation. Not so, Johnson says.
“No. When you step on the field playing for Tennessee you’ve got a lot of pressure,” he said. “But instincts really take over. I watch a lot of film, and that gives me my edge out there on the field.”
Incredibly, Johnson caught just five passes his lone season at Blinn. The obvious question: Why was he so unproductive?
“The system wasn’t right for me,” he said, quickly adding: “That’s in the past, and I’m focused on the future.”
Could you repeat that, coach?
Head coach Butch Jones obviously knows which buttons to push and which words to say to motivate his Volunteers. Some of his comments seem a little mystifying when made in front of the media, however. Here are a couple of recent quotes that had reporters scratching their heads:
EXHIBIT A: “I tell our players: ‘Are you talking to yourself or are you listening to yourself talk?’”
EXHIBIT B: “We talk about the standards and the expectations every single day. We talk about ‘Do you love the Power T or do you love the power of the T?’”
If you know the answer to either question you may have a future in coaching.
Season opener, eye opener
Most fans cannot imagine what it’s like to be an 18-year-old freshman preparing to play your first college game before 100,000 screaming fans in Neyland Stadium with millions more watching on national TV. Todd Kelly Jr., listed No. 2 at free safety behind sophomore Devaun Swafford, recently tried to put his feelings into words:
“It’s pretty crazy,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of surreal.”
Marquez North video interview