Now that Florida's Aaron Hernandez has moved on to the NFL, Luke Stocker probably ranks as the premier tight end in the Southeastern Conference. Moreover, he'll be playing the 2010 season in the tight end-friendly offense of new Vol head coach Derek Dooley.
Stocker considered bypassing his senior season in favor of the recent NFL Draft. Rated a third- to fourth-round prospect by the NFL Advisory Committee, he decided to come back for his final college season in hopes of being a second-round pick a year from now.
Basically, the main problem with Stocker is that there's only one of him. If Dooley could clone him, the Vols wouldn't lose one of the primary weapons when he's out of the lineup.
With injury-plagued Jeff Cottam out of eligibility, the task of backing up Stocker falls to junior Ben Bartholomew, a 6-1, 247-pound converted fullback. Bartholomew lacks ideal height for the position but is a gung-ho blocker with good hands. He failed to record a reception in 2009 but caught 3 balls for 33 yards in the Orange & White Game earlier this month.
Tennessee signed one tight end last February who should contend for immediate playing time - junior college transfer Mychal Rivera. The 6-4, 250-pound Californian caught 35 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns for College of the Canyons last fall.
Walk-on Ben Lehning might figure in the mix, too, based on the receiving skills he exhibited in spring practice. The 6-1, 232-pound junior from Nashville caught a 12-yard pass in the first scrimmage and 2 passes for 27 yards in the second. Whether he has the size to hold up as a blocker against SEC-caliber defenders is the key question.
Miami transfer Daniel Adderly (6-6, 235) has eye-popping height but did not catch a pass in any of the spring scrimmages. Walk-ons Matt Wegzyn (6-2, 234) and Charles Karlosky (6-2, 218) provide depth.
Because Dooley is moving Tennessee towards a two-tight end attack, the fullback's role in the Vol scheme is dwindling. With 2009 backup Austin Johnson moving to linebacker, the Big Orange has just one scholarship fullback on the roster - rising senior Kevin Cooper. The 6-0, 254-pounder from Chattanooga carried one time for 3 yards and caught 12 passes for 110 yards last fall. He did not carry the ball in the spring scrimmages but reeled in an 18-yard pass in the first one.
Backing up Cooper will be junior walk-on Sam Edgmon (6-1, 227) and mid-term freshman Channing Fugate (6-2, 229). Edgmon picked up 20 yards on four carries in the second spring scrimmage but managed just one yard on three rushes in the Orange & White Game. Fugate caught two passes for 7 yards in the O&W Game.
Position outlook: Excellent if Stocker stays healthy. Mediocre if he doesn't.