Searching For Jason Witten

Vol fans looking for positive signs of an offensive rebound this season have to be greatly encouraged by the play of Tennessee's young wide receivers in the first two games.

Veteran receiver Tony Brown demonstrated marked improvement in the strength department by hauling in a couple of clutch touchdowns. Sophomore C.J. Fayton has continued to build on his strong effort in last year's Peach Bowl. Mark Jones has proved his worth on offense while continuing to be a major contributor on defense and special teams. True freshman Jayson Swain is the best young talent the Vols have had a wide receiver since Donte Stallworth, while Parade All-American Bret Smith is expected to make an early move up the depth chart. Tennessee's most promising signee from the Class of 2003 may be Robert Meachem, another Parade All-American who is sitting out the season with a knee injury.

In the euphoria surrounding the performance of these promising prospects and the belief the reputation of Wide Receiver U is once again in good hands, many may have overlooked the lack of production at tight end.

Well, that's not exactly accurate because Victor McClure has been a very productive blocker at tight end, while sophomore Jake Finlayson has provided a reliable second tight end in short yardage situations. But to this point, there is not a tight end on Tennessee's roster that has ever caught a pass in college competition.

The significance of that fact is easily dismissed as long as Tennessee is completing long passes and racking up 200-yard rushing games as it did in victories over Fresno State and Marshall. However the absence of a receiving threat at tight end may become glaring in a series of upcoming SEC contests against Florida, South Carolina, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama. These teams will possess more speed on defense and better cover corners. They will be willing to leave their corners locked up in man coverage with minimal help from the safeties. In turn, this will allow the safeties to be more involved in run support. Furthermore, these opponents will have D-lines more capable of pressuring the passer.

The best way to counter safeties creeping up to the line of scrimmage in anticipation of the run is to send the tight end over the middle. The tight end is also a viable option as a hot read when defenses send their inside linebackers on blitzes.

Expect the Gators to deploy some of each tactic, much as they did last year against Tennessee when it was profitable to force the Vols to throw to receivers that couldn't consistently beat man coverage. Granted, Tennessee is better equipped to beat defensive schemes that stuff the box with nine defenders, but that's a risk defenses are willing to take because the Vols are even more deadly on the ground, where they can wear defenses down while controlling the ball, the clock and field position.

Likewise, Florida will apply pressure up the middle because it's the most effective means of forcing Casey Clausen out of the pocket where he's not a running threat and his passing percentage drops precipitously. When Florida attempted to do the same thing to Miami, Brock Berlin had a ready answer in Kellen Winslow, an athletic tight end who can get off the line of scrimmage quickly and poses a mismatch for any DB.

When you have the luxury of a tight end of Winslow's stature, it forces defenses to play more conservatively. However any competent pass catching tight end provides offenses with a ready option as a hot read because they are in the eligible receiver in the best position to occupy space vacated by blitzing linebackers.

The question is does Tennessee have a competent receiver at tight end? As previously pointed out there is no evidence to dispel such doubts. On the other hand, Tennessee may have intentionally disguised the tight end as a potential target to maximize the position's impact in the games that matter most. Justin Reed, a 6-7, 265-pound sophomore from Punta Gorda, Fla., would appear to be the most likely UT tight end to catch a pass, given his size, 4.7 speed and athletic ability. Unfortunately, Reed doesn't appear ready to assume the blocking responsibilities of a tight end which makes his insertion into the lineup a red flag for defenses.

True freshman Brad Cottam, 6-8, 250, is another possibility and he came in ahead of most rookies in the strength department. However he is still a little lean to take on tackles or strong side defensive ends and he doesn't have much pass-catching experience at even the high school level.

If the Vols do have an answer to the need for a receiving threat at tight end this week would be the time to unveil it. Not only would an effective receiver neutralize some of Florida's aggressive defensive tendencies, it would also give Clausen a short yardage target. The more evenly matched an offense and defense are the more often third-and-three situations will occur. That is one of the most difficult down-and-distance situations to call plays for because it is too long to run and too short to pass. However the tight end is a pass target that can block and release on short yardage popping open as the defense reacts to play action.

The same is true in the red zone where a wide receiver's speed is less disposable and a tight end's size is most valuable. The more evenly matched teams are or the closer the game, the more important a tight end's role as a receiver becomes.

An excellent example of this assertion took place in Monday Night's NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. The Cowboys completed two key passes to tight ends to move the ball into range for the game-winning field goal in overtime. One of those passes went to Jason Witten on third and three.

Had he not elected to leave Tennessee early, Witten would be the definitive answer to the Vols' tight end questions. In his absence, the Vols are still searching.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories