Two of the indelible memories from Witten's three years on the Hill are his clutch sixth overtime TD grab versus Arkansas and the image of him speeding past the Michigan secondary on his way to a TD in the Citrus Bowl. In 2001 Witten totalled 28 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns. Stalwart blocker John Finlayson added 4 receptions for 34 yards that year. In 2002, Witten had 39 receptions for 493 yards and 5 TDs for the Vols. No recent Tennessee tight end has come close to hose numbers.
Since Jason Witten left early for the NFL draft, receptions by Volunteer TE have been rare events. In 2003 converted guard Victor McClure provided the only reception by a Vol TE. He made his catch against Miami, good for 11 yards. In 2004 current Vol Chris Brown had six catches for 74 yards and a TD. Brad Cottam added two catches for 34 yards and Justin Reed made the most of his only Vol reception with sixteen yard TD versus Florida. So far in 2005, Brown has nine catches for 91 yards.
For those scoring at home (and don't we all wish we were scoring at home) that equals only 19 receptions for 226 yards and two scores by all UT TE in almost three seasons of the AW era (after Witten).
Around the league there is variable enthusiasm for the TE as a weapon in the passing game. Current conference elite teams like Georgia, Alabama, and Auburn use the tight end as a significant part of the attack. Georgia Bulldog TE Leonard Pope represents the kind of giant target that is a nightmare mismatch for most DBs. Thus far in 2005 he has 27 catches and 400 yards for two TDs. Bookend UGA TE Martrez Milner has added 11 catches for 259 yards and two TDs. The pair make up almost one-third of Georgia's passing yardage on the season. Auburn's duo of Cole Bennett and Cooper Wallace have 24 receptions and 278 yards between them. They have helped ease the transition for first year Tiger starting QB Brandon Cox, providing him with inviting targets and safety valves.
Vandy's TE Dustin Dunning has 34 catches so far in 2005, most among SEC TE, for 381 yards.
While there will always be differences in offensive style, it is surprising to find that so few teams across the SEC throw to the TE with any frequency. True, physical specimens like Leonard Pope or Jason Witten don't come along every year, but many of these teams keep five and six tight ends on their rosters. (The Vols have five.) The league's offenses line up against many common opponents, so why don't more teams use the TE to good effect?
First, some offensive styles are just not geared to the TE. South Carolina's Steve Spurrier would rather have four WR making plays in space, than a big man who creates his own space. The Spurrier system has never relied on a TE as a major player. Urban Meyer's patented spread offense also has little use for a tight end, although his Utah teams had a slightly greater TE role than his 2005 Florida unit has used.
Second, the SEC has been prime territory for big wide receivers. Guys like 6'4" Sidney Rice at South Carolina, 6'3" Dallas Baker at Florida or LSU's 6'4" Dwayne Bowe give coaches the height mismatches that were once only found when the TE was used.
Third, I believe SEC linebackers are faster than their counterparts in most other conferences. Bigger and faster weakside linebackers in the SEC make life harder for TE's looking for a mismatch. Coaches choose to have another blocker in the line, hoping to create mismatches of another sort in the running game.
Still, it seems that the tight end is underutilized at Tennessee. Even if only a decoy to occupy a linebacker, a few tosses a game could keep linebackers honest and perhaps open up the running game a bit. Linebackers who have less fear of getting beat on a pass route can cheat up a bit or blitz more often. Sometimes an effective pass route is better than great block.
The "wide tackle" position may change at UT in coming years. Several of Tennessee's verbal commitments have played TE in high school, although moves to other positions seem likely once these prospects arrive on campus. Other than fulllback sized Brown, the Vols have the Cotttam bothers, Brad and Jeff, back for 2006. At 6'7" and 6'8", perhaps we'll see them stretching the defense vertically, in the original meaning of "vertically".
NFL Hall of Fame tight end (and legendary tough guy) Mike Ditka said. "A good tight end can be a struggling quarterback's best friend." It seems that UT's quarterbacks could use all the friends they can get.