I was convinced the tight end trio of Luke Stocker, Brandon Warren and Jeff Cottam would put up gaudy numbers in 2008. Stocker (13 receptions) and Warren (10) were limited by a woeful passing attack, however, and Cottam wound up going catch-less after missing the first four games with a broken leg.
Given the above, you can understand why I'm adopting a wait-and-see attitude as the 2009 season approaches. Barring injury, though, this could be the year Vol tight ends finally put up some gaudy receiving numbers. There are several reasons for this:
First, Cottam is injury-free for a change. Secondly, he and Stocker should fit beautifully in a new pro-style offense that relies heavily on the short passing game. Joining them in the playing rotation is converted fullback Ben Bartholomew, who showed intriguing potential in spring practice.
Each tight end brings decidedly different strengths to the table.
Stocker is a 6-6, 245-pound junior who probably is Tennessee's most dangerous receiving threat at tight end since Jason Witten. Stocker is adept at route-running and has enough speed to stretch a defense vertically.
Cottam is a 6-8, 260-pound senior who probably is the best blocking tight end on The Hill since John Finlayson. Cottam's aggressive nature makes him ideally suited for two-tight end sets aimed at maximizing the ground attack.
Bartholomew, a 6-2, 250-pound sophomore, isn't as dynamic as Stocker in the passing game or as potent as Cottam in the run game but he may be more well-rounded than either of them.
Basically, the tight end situation was a mess in 2008. Cottam appeared rusty after returning from his broken leg, and the staff never figured out how to get the undersized Warren (now playing wide receiver) involved in the passing game. That left all of the load on Stocker, who – like just about everyone else on offense – played well below his potential last fall.
Tennessee's tight ends may or may not put up gaudy numbers in 2009. But, with Cottam healthy, Stocker more experienced and Bartholomew progressing rapidly, they should make a whole lot more impact this fall than they did last fall.
Using my usual grading system of Plus-2 (significantly improved), Plus-1 (somewhat improved), 0 (about the same), Minus-1 (somewhat weaker) and Minus-2 (significantly weaker), I'm giving the tight end position a Plus-1.