Tight end talent is tantalizing

When Erik Ainge joined the University of Tennessee football program four years ago, the tight end corps probably made him yawn. Now, as he prepares for his senior season, the tight end corps probably makes him salivate.

Chris Brown (6-3, 250) is back for his senior year after catching 31 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown last fall. Fellow starter Brad Cottam (6-8, 270) returns after grabbing 14 balls for 182 yards and an eye-catching 13.0 yards-per-catch average. Sophomore Jeff Cottam (6-8, 260) and redshirt freshman Luke Stocker (6-6, 240) are coming off impressive spring performances.

That foursome is probably as talented as any tight end quartet in college football. Two of the four will be on the field most of the time next fall. Three will be utilized simultaneously in some sets. Naturally, the quality of weapons available to him at the tight end position has Ainge excited.

"Absolutely," he said recently. "I think the tight ends have been doing a great job. Brad Cottam's been banged up but he'll be ready to go. Chris Brown is a three-year starter. The young guys, Stocker and Jeff Cottam, really came along, too."

Given that Tennessee has proven tight ends and unproven wide receivers, it appears the Vols might choose to rely more than usual on the former in 2007 and less than usual on the latter. Ainge concedes that is an option but he isn't ready to concede the point just yet.

"A lot of it depends on how the wideouts go ... if the wideouts step up," he said. "I think they're doing a great job; they're doing their best. We'll kind of see as they go.

"If we have some guys step up and make some plays, then we can rely on that. I KNOW we'll be able to rely on the tight ends."

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