Could Cottam Become UT's Big-Play Tight End?

Sometimes the best barometer for gauging a prospect's potential isn't by how much he produces, but rather, by how much he progresses during his junior and senior seasons.

A player that flat-lines as an upperclassman could be caught in a talent fluctuation at supporting positions on the team, or it might be an indication a player has peaked early and has, at best, nominal room for improvement at the collegiate level. In other words, his best football is probably frozen in time on his high school highlight tape.

This evaluation process takes in other factors such as age of a prospect. This is an area that can vary significantly especially taking into account the difference a year can make to a late-bloomer.

For instance: Turk McBride and RoShaun Fellows won't turn 18 until this summer, while Daniel Brooks will be 20 years old on Oct. 6 this fall — the same age JC D-lineman Zarnell Fitch turns on July 6. Brooks is 58 days short of being two years older than Fellows.

If highly touted offensive lineman Eric Young redshirts this fall, as expected, he'll turn 21 during his freshman season on Nov. 22, 2004, which is the same age offensive lineman Sean Young will be for his entire senior season this fall. Young turns 22 (Dec. 1, 2003), two days after the Vols wrap up the regular season at Kentucky.

Normally you can expect more from a true freshman who is 19 than you can from one who is 18. The Vols have five signees that will be 19 before the season starts on Aug. 30 vs. Tulsa, including: Brooks, Young, Corey Campbell, Jayson Swain and Bo Hardegree. While seven incoming freshmen won't turn 19 until 2004 — McBride, Fellows, Britton Colquitt, Bret Smith, Jarod Parrish, Tony McDaniel and Jonathan Hefney. Brad Cottam (Nov. 27) is the youngest of a group of six prospects that will turn 19 during the 2003 campaign.

That means the 6-8, 240-pound Cottam has room for growth, but that's not the best means of measuring his ubiquitous upside. That's found in his rapid rise up the ranks from high school football suspect to college gridiron prospect.

When Cottam was a sophomore at Memphis Evangelical Christian School, Head Coach Jim Heinz doubted the skinny tight end would make it to his junior season before giving up football in favor of basketball. Only a year later, Heinz could not only see Cottam had a college football future, he was actively promoting it.

"Brad really began to come on in his junior year," Heinz said. "I just felt that right at 6-8, 240 pounds or so, that if he could gain some weight, get stronger, not only would he have the potential of playing tight end with his speed, but I thought he could go inside, too, if he gained up to 290 pounds or so. He's got good feet. He runs well. I felt like there was potential there and I just wanted to make sure the schools knew about him."

Heinz recommended the up-and-comer get some exposure at spring combines and summer camps, and other talent evaluators soon shared his opinion of Cottam.

"He went to a couple of camps," Heinz said. "He went up to UT, to Ole Miss and just performed well at those camps. He was also at the Nike Camp. That's just where it started in the spring of his junior year and on into the summer. He's worked hard."

Cottam amazed scouts at the Nike Camp with a sub 4.7 clocking in the 40, a 4.3 time in the 20-yard shuttle and a 30-inch vertical leap.

"I know most camps he was going to he was running between 4.6 and 4.7," said Heinz. "That certainly had to be impressive, plus talking to the coaches he not only had the speed but he caught the ball, too, and that's what they're anticipating him doing is to play tight end."

Heinz believes Cottam has the athletic ability, even with his size, to become a genuine pass-catching threat at tight end in college.

"You like to put that tight end out there sometimes on those defensive backs and he fits that mode pretty good; just spreading out wide and getting down the field," Heinz said. "He's a good blocker, he just needs to get his strength up to play at that level. But that's one of the things that also impressed me about Brad, just watching film and seeing the way he comes off the ball, and he's still just learning the game."

Cottam didn't even take up organized football until he was a freshman in high school, dedicating most of his free time to developing a promising basketball career.

"He came into our program in the ninth grade and he didn't play much that year," Heinz recalled. "He just developed himself and got more devoted to it. I thought he was going to be a basketball player, but he turned out to just love the game of football."

As Cottam began to foster an affinity for football, he also learned to appreciate the value of strength training. Though he has been held back by a late start and overlapping basketball seasons, Cottam has made strides in the weight room after his junior season. At the Nike Camp, he performed a very respectable 19 reps of 185 pounds, but his best chance to make big gains will come this spring and summer.

"He goes straight from football straight into basketball so he hasn't been able to lift as much," Heinz said. "He worked hard this past spring and summer, but I think he'll really benefit from being in a strength program like Tennessee offers."

Cottam plans to get to campus early and get acclimated to life as a college football player with a perennial national power.

"He's going up in July and I think once he gets up there and concentrates only on football, he'll get his weight up quickly," Heinz said. "His best football is still ahead of him. He's just learning the game. He's just come around in the last two years. If you asked me in the ninth or tenth grade I would have said: ‘he would have given up football and stayed with basketball' but he stuck with it and just took a complete turnaround. He'd go out on his own and run after we got through with weights and football just became his first love."

Early in his senior year, Cottam demonstrated he was able to translate his improvement as a player on the field of competition, catching two clutch touchdowns in the season opener against a talented Memphis East squad.

"In our first game this year he made two big catches against East that kept us in the game," said Heinz. "They've got a big, quick football team and I think he showed people what he could do. He made a couple of good touchdown catches against them."

Cottam finished his senior year with 24 catches for 340 yards and five touchdowns, highlighted by a five reception, 120-yard performance against Harding Academy. His opportunities were otherwise limited, as he saw primarily double-team coverage and ECS ran an I-formation built around the tailback, but he took things in stride.

"He's not the type that complains about getting the ball," Heinz said. "I never heard him complain about not getting the ball enough. You know when you're in the limelight like that you want the ball thrown to you. We probably should have got the ball to him more."

Cottam's contributions weren't limited to catching passes, he also became a solid blocker and a capable defensive end in his first duty on defense.

"He was our starting defensive end, and considering that he hadn't played there before, he did an outstanding job for us." Heinz offered. "If he could get up to 270, 280, and he'd be thin at that, I'm telling you the kid could do a lot for you. He could go inside or play tight end and with his speed. I'm not sure he couldn't play defensive end. I don't think that's their (Vols) wishes, they're counting on him playing tight end."

Indeed, Tennessee not only needs Cottam at tight end, it needs him to contribute early. Aaron Kirkland is the only other tight end on scholarship, although it seems likely that redshirt freshman Jason Hall will get a look there this spring and Victor McClure will continue his career as a wide tackle i.e. blocking tight end.

"He's playing basketball now and that's keeping him out of the weight room," said Heinz. "But that's about to come to a close and he'll get back in there and get busy. He's really excited about the opportunity."

Cottam averages double figures in points and rebounds for ECU, but will limit his play to intramural basketball at Tennessee. For the most part, he'll apply himself to the task of getting bigger, stronger and faster. Heinz has seen what the rangy pass catcher can do once he dedicates himself to a goal and believes UT will be happy with what it gets in terms of a player.

"He's just a great kid with great work habits," said Heinz. "I think they're getting a quality kid. He's got to gain some weight and strength, but I think he'll gain more speed as he learns how to run where they've got him out there working with him on improving his takeoffs. It's all up to him.

"It sure brings a smile to his face to think he'll get a chance to go out there and contribute this year."

If Cottam contributes this year, Vol coaches will be ecstatic.

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