Vols In Hunt For Tight Ends

After two seasons with Jason Witten at tight end, followed by a season in which no tight end has caught a pass through three games, it's easy to appreciate the need for a big target in the middle, who can eat space vacated by blitzing linebackers, absorb short passes tossed by beleaguered QBs, or split a pair of safeties walking up in run support.

Tight end Ben Troupe emerged as Florida's most dangerous weapon against Tennessee and underscored the need for a big target with speed to work underneath coverage and create instant mismatches.

Tennessee signed tight end Brad Cottam, 6-8, 255, in the Class of 2003 but recently lost the services of Aaron Kirkland, who was dismissed from the squad for not meeting academic standards. Kirkland was rated the nation's No. 3 tight end prospect in the Class of 2002 but never caught a pass for the Vols. Redshirt junior Victor McClure is more of a loose tackle than a tight end, while sophomore walk-on Jake Finlayson adds depth but no receptions. Former punter Justin Reed has surprisingly good speed and athletic ability for his size (6-5, 265), but has long way to go to learn the position.

Obviously, Tennessee has a need for speed at tight end — a playmaker with the talent to catch passes, break tackles, outrun linebackers and leap over safeties in a single bound. Currently the Vols are in contention for three of the nation's top five tight ends as rated by The Insiders. No. 1 Zach Miller, 6-5, 240, 4.7, of Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Az., No. 2 Rory Nicol, 6-5, 242, 4.8, of Beaver, Pa., and No. 5 Tom Santi, 6-5, 225, 4.52 of MBA High School in Nashville.

While it's too early to rule out Tennessee with any of these prospects, it should be noted that both Miller and Nicol have two favorites that don't include the Vols. Miller currently favors home state Arizona and Miami. Nicole likes Pittsburgh and Penn State. Given the additional obstacle of distance and it's easy enough to see UT has its work cut out to land either of the nation's top-rated tight end prospects.

The competition is also intense for Santi, who returned from an official visit to Iowa last weekend that went very well. He has an official visit set for Virginia on Nov. 28 and is also looking at Stanford, Florida and Miami. In fact, the Canes sent a coach to see one of his practices last week. Santi's family has strong UT ties, but MBA's football players don't have a history of signing with Tennessee. The Vols offered Santi over the summer hoping to get a commitment before word got out of his underrated talents. However Santi rose like a Saturn Rocket after attending a Nike Camp and landing him figures to be a challenge.

After losing out to Notre Dame on last season's No. 1 tight prospect Greg Olsen and being further depleted by Kirkland's departure this year in addition to the unexpected loss of JC tight end Leon Pinky last year, the Vols are expanding their search.

Among the lesser known prospects Tennessee is evaluating are Marc Winston, 6-6, 235, 4.7, Little Rock Parkview High School, Cordova Tennessee prospect Phillip Merling, 6-6, 250, 4.7 and Little Rock Central's Fred Bledsoe, 6-4, 289, 4.8.

Winston is the son of former Razorback tight end Bill Winston and the nephew of former NFL linebacker Dennis Winston. In addition to Arkansas and Tennessee, Winston is looking at Alabama, Stanford and Iowa. He also plays basketball, but is leaning toward football in college.

"I haven't decided for sure if I'll play both sports in college," he said. "There's still a small chance I will only play basketball in college. However, I know at my size I probably have a better chance of playing professionally in football at tight end. I will likely just choose one sport and do that in college."

Bledsoe could also play defensive tackle in college and has a long list of schools that includes: Arkansas, Tennessee, Miami, Iowa, LSU, Colorado, Tulsa, Oklahoma State and Alabama.

Merling, who could also play on the defensive line or at tight end, transferred to Cordova High School from St. Matthews-Calhoun County High School in South Carolina. As a junior he caught 39 catches with nine touchdowns and he compiled 68 tackles with 10 sacks. He's described by Tom Lemming as "an All-American waiting to happen." Merling is considering numerous schools at this point, including Memphis where his uncle is an assistant coach. He's also talking to coaches from South Carolina, Clemson and Georgia.

Other tight ends the Vols have shown an interest in include: Kellen Freeman-Davis, 6-6, 225, 4.7, of Adrian High School in Adrian Miss., and Brandon Ledbetter, 6-5, 210, 4.6, of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale where current Vol receiver Tony Brown played.

The search for a quarterback is still the top priority for Tennessee's offense, but signing a weapon at tight end would sure make his job easier.

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