With blond hair and a boyish face, he appears harmless. Don’t let the looks fool you, though: Tennessee’s first-team tight end is a Wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Ethan Wolf looks like he belongs in an advertisement for teenage beach attire but he showed last fall that he belongs in Tennessee’s first-team lineup, becoming the first true freshman in Vol history to start a season opener at tight end. Proving equal to the task, he started 12 of 13 games (missing one due to injury) and averaged 9.2 yards per catch on 23 receptions.
Though pleased, Mark Elder was far from satisfied with Wolf’s debut season.
“I thought Ethan had a nice year as a freshman,” the Vols’ tight end coach told InsideTennessee. “He was able to come in, learn the system and execute well. The biggest thing you want to see from Year 1 to Year 2 is not making freshman mistakes – not getting confused on a call. Instead of running the route right nine times out of 10, he’s running it right 10 times out of 10.”
Now that he’s had a full year in Tennessee’s offense, Wolf vows that his rookie mistakes of 2014 won’t be repeated in 2015.
“Now that I'm familiar with the offense and not a whole lot of things are changing, I can mentally lock down and not have any mental errors,” he said. “Every freshman has them. And now that I'm not a freshman anymore I feel like I definitely know the offense that much more, in and out, and won't have any mental mistakes that happened last year."
Wolf can become one of the SEC’s elite players in 2015 if he elevates his blocking skills to match his receiving skills. Toward that end he has worked diligently to get stronger and tougher than he was last fall.
"Going up against guys that are bigger – one-on-one blocking defensive ends – definitely was a challenge,” he said. “Last year I kind of felt overpowered in certain situations.”
Wolf had so much difficulty as a one-on-one blocker last fall that the staff eventually stopped putting him in those situations.
“We didn't do a whole lot of that last year,” he conceded. “But now I feel like I can hold my ground. I definitely feel more powerful and stronger due to the weight room."
Mike DeBord sees improvement from Wolf but wants to see more.
“He’s done a really nice job in the passing game,” the Vols’ first-year offensive coordinator said. “The biggest thing is, he’s got to become more consistent with his footwork in the run game. When he does that he’ll be an excellent blocker.”
Elder agrees that Wolf can be a blocking standout in time.
“It’s just technique, as far as being consistent with your footwork, being consistent with your finish angles, having great hands,” the Vol aide said. “Those are things needed to be a great blocker.”
Another key attribute is perseverance. Sticking with a block is half the battle.
“Being in a bad position and being able to work yourself into a good position during the play is something great players are able to do,” Elder said. “A great player can be put in a bad position at the start of a play and fight his way into a good position by the end of the play, preventing his defender from making a play. That’s what you want to see out of Ethan as he grows.”
Wolf still packs 250 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame but he has shed some baby fat and added some lean muscle. As a result, he has gained strength without gaining weight. An added benefit is that he feels quicker and more agile.
|Wolf caught 23 passes for 212 yards as a freshman while dealing with a hurt knee much of the season.|
“I’m more explosive, just trimming my body fat down and replacing it with muscle,” he said. “That's allowed me to come in and out of my breaks faster and be faster in a straight line, so it's providing me a better chance to get open and make plays."
In addition to decreasing his body fat, hard work is increasing his stamina. That’s important when you are a 250-pounder trying to maintain the hectic pace of Tennessee’s hurry-up offense.
“It’s not terrible, honestly,” Wolf said. “There are times when you wish you had more time (before the snap) but you’ve got to remember why we’re doing it – to wear our opponents out. Throughout the course of last year you could tell that we were conditioned for all of that and the defenses weren’t in certain cases. It’s definitely beneficial.”
Tennessee’s taxing tempo leaves a guy precious little time to evaluate the defense before a snap but Wolf is making strides in that area, as well.
“The biggest adjustment is to read defenses and know what you’re doing that much faster because you don’t have time to stand at the line and analyze what kind of coverage you’ve got,” he said. “You’ve just got to think quicker; that’s the biggest adjustment.”
Based on the progress he saw in spring practice, Tennessee’s passing game coordinator can’t wait to exploit Wolf’s multiple skill set this fall.
"He is a threat, with his size and his versatility,” Zach Azzanni told IT. “He can block the edge but also get out on the perimeter. He is 6-6, he creates mismatches, so he has really created a whole other element for us in that personnel grouping."
Tennessee’s head coach thinks Wolf flashed All-SEC potential during spring practice.
“I thought Ethan made strides in his blocking and his body position,” Butch Jones said. “Where Ethan has to concentrate is (developing) a high level of consistency. All-conference performers perform at a high level in terms of catching the football and finishing the blocks. The want-to is there, the competitive character is there. He’s as big a student of the game as we have, so Ethan will be fine.”
Wolf has a chance to become a standout now that he has had a year in the program to mature physically and mentally. His position coach expects as much.
“You want to see a guy take his game from running the proper route to running a great route with technique,” Elder said. “You want to see a guy creating his own separation, not relying on the route to give you separation. You want to see a guy that transforms his game from being a competent player to being a dominant player.”
If all of that happens in 2015, no amount of sheep’s clothing will be able to disguise the fact that Tennessee’s tight end is a full-grown wolf.