Tight ends loom large for UT

You can always tell when spring time arrives in East Tennessee: The temperature grows warmer, the grass turns green, the flowers blossom and Tennessee's football coaches promise more passes to the tight end.

This year is no exception but this year there are two excellent reasons for them to keep that promise – Chris Brown and Brad Cottam. Tennessee hasn't had a tight end duo this productive since Mark Adams and Von Reeves shared playing time from 1989 to '91.

Brown (6-3, 250 pounds) caught 31 passes for 239 yards last fall. Cottam (6-8, 270 pounds) caught 14 balls for 182 yards and an eye-popping 13.0 yards-per-catch average. The two rising seniors are so versatile that they'll be playing a hybrid position featuring elements of three traditional positions. As head coach Phillip Fulmer explained, "They're interchangeable at tight end or H-back or fullback."

Whereas Adams and Reeves generally alternated, Brown and Cottam will be used simultaneously much of the time. They're too valuable for either to spend much time on the bench. Both started Saturday's spring scrimmage. Cottam caught two passes for 33 yards, Brown one for roughly 20 yards.

"The tight ends made some plays," Fulmer said following the scrimmage. "And when we went to third-down situations, they really showed up. They have to be factors for us. There could be times when we have three of them on the field at the same time if the receivers don't progress like we need them to."

This spring the Vols are molding an offense that is flexible enough to change formations without changing personnel. That's why they've basically combined the tight end, fullback and H-back positions.

"We're recruiting players that give us enough flexibility that we don't have to substitute in order to have a fullback, two tight ends on the line or one split out," Fulmer said. "Defenses are scheming you anymore based on the personnel grouping you're in. Hopefully, we'll be able to stay with the same personnel and do all the things we want to do."

The Vols' talent at tight end, coupled with their inexperience at wide receiver, means Brown and Cottam conceivably could rank 1-2 on Tennessee's receiving chart this fall.

"We're just trying to use our athletes," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said. "Brad Cottam and Chris Brown are two guys with a lot of experience. They're uncanny with what they've learned. (Assistant coach) Matt Luke has done a tremendous job at that position."

In addition to Cottam and Brown, Tennessee's tight end ranks feature sophomore Jeff Cottam (6-8, 260) and redshirt freshman Luke Stocker (6-6, 235). They will be factors this fall, as well.

"Jeff Cottam's well on his way and Luke Stocker's well on his way (in terms of) becoming versatile players," Cutcliffe said. "And David Holbert has some naturalness. That gives us some versatility."

Bottom line: The annual tight end promise probably has more validity than usual. Brown and Brad Cottam were significant factors in 2006, and they'll probably be leaned on even more in 2007.

"Tight end was a really strong position for us last year and we're expecting it to be this year," Fulmer said. "We've got the same guys in Chris Brown, Brad Cottam, Jeff Cottam – and I think there are going to be some really exciting things done with Luke Stocker."

SCRIMMAGE CORRECTION

The fumble returned 55 yards for a touchdown by Dorian Davis in Saturday's scrimmage was incorrectly charged to sophomore quarterback Jonathan Crompton in our post-scrimmage report. In fact, redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Stephens coughed up the football on that play.


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