Looming large

With Tennessee's corps of healthy wideouts dwindling rapidly, the tight ends are looming larger and larger in the 2009 passing attack.

The Vols finished spring practice with eight scholarship receivers. When sophomores Ahmad Paige and Tyler Maples decided to transfer, the number dropped to a half-dozen.

Now the six has become three. Senior Austin Rogers has an ACL tear that will sideline him for the entire 2009 season. Junior Denarius Moore has a broken bone in his foot that will force him to watch preseason camp and possibly the first two games. Junior Gerald Jones, slow recovering from offseason wrist surgery, also is questionable for Games 1 and 2.

Result: Tennessee's available receiving corps is down to a trio of returning players - senior Quintin Hancock, junior Brandon Warren and sophomore Todd Campbell. Warren caught 10 passes for 85 yards last season but was playing tight end at the time. Hancock and Campbell did not register a catch between them last fall.

Fortunately for Tennessee, the depleted depth at receiver is somewhat offset by an abundance of depth at tight end. When healthy, senior Jeff Cottam (6-8, 260) has All-SEC potential. So does junior Luke Stocker (6-6, 245), who caught 13 balls for 139 yards last fall. And sophomore Ben Bartholomew (6-2, 250) showed tremendous promise in spring practice after moving from fullback to tight end.

Even before the wideout ranks grew so thin Cottam figured he and Stocker would catch a lot of balls this fall. Tight ends tend to be key targets in the pro-style offense UT is implementing.

"It looks like we're going to be playing a big role, getting a lot of balls this season," Cottam said. "We'll probably be doing a lot of two-tight sets with me and Luke. It seems like this is going to be a good year for us."

Asked if the tight ends can pick up the slack created by the injuries at receiver, Cottam nodded.

"I think we were already up there with catching more balls but I think we'll have wide receivers step up, too," he said. "We've got a lot of talent at wide receiver, and they're going to have to step up."

Tennessee signed four standout receiver prospects last February - Nu'Keese Richardson (Pahokee, Fla.), James Green (Tallahassee, Fla.), Marsalis Teague (Paris, Tenn.) and Zach Rogers (Nashville). All four could contribute as freshmen this fall.

Until the freshmen are ready and Jones/Moore are healthy, however, the Vols may lean heavily on their tight ends. That seems likely to happen, based on head coach Lane Kiffin's reliance on tight ends during his days as offensive coordinator at Southern Cal.

"The first- and second-string tight ends caught an average of three or four balls per game, so we're really looking forward to it," Cottam noted. "We think we're going to be getting a lot of reps and catching a lot of balls this year."

Another thing Cottam relishes about the new offensive scheme is how player-friendly it is.

"I like it a lot," he said. "It's kind of simplified to where everyone can understand it and get a grasp of it easier. We can just go out there and play without having to think about things."

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