Tight end is one of the most underappreciated positions in all of football, yet also one of the most important. A great tight end can transform an offense from good to elite as both a blocker and receiving threat.
Take Kyle Pitts, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, into consideration. Pitts led the Florida Gators receiving corps with 12 touchdowns and finished just shy of wide receiver Kadarius Toney in total receiving yards by season’s end. Pitts did all this in eight games, with two of Florida’s four losses all season coming without Pitts on the field.
In recent years, Tennessee has not had a tight end anywhere near this caliber in terms of production; perhaps not even a notch under.
It’s not as if there was a shortage of talent, either. Jeremy Pruitt failed to use Dominick Wood-Anderson to his full potential, and Tennessee tight ends averaged just 245 yards and two touchdowns per season under his jurisdiction.
Josh Heupel offers a fresh start for the tight ends on the roster, veteran or otherwise. His offense utilizes the position in run block and goal line situations almost exclusively, often with huge success. During his stint as UCF’s head coach, Heupel’s tight ends posted 44 receptions for 437 yards and 10 touchdowns in three years.
Tennessee has seven tight ends listed on their official roster as of late July, three of which have caught a pass in the orange and white throughout their careers.
The Vols’ leader in production at tight end last year was Princeton Fant, a 6-foot-2 redshirt senior from Nashville. Fant’s athleticism made him comparable to a wideout in Pruitt’s offense, good enough for 103 yards on the season and one trip to the endzone against Vanderbilt.
Fant and Jacob Warren were the only two tight ends to catch a pass in 2020. Warren, a 6-foot-6 redshirt junior from Knoxville, will likely see extended minutes in goal line situations due to his power forward-esque size.
Redshirt senior Austin Pope is also returning for the Vols in 2021. Pope withdrew his name from the transfer portal earlier this year after suffering a back injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the 2020 season. Perhaps the best run blocking tight end on Tennessee’s roster, Pope has caught just seven passes through three seasons on the field for the Vols.
The tight end unit is rounded out by a group of talented freshmen. Miles Campbell highlights the trio, rated by 247sports as the No. 11 tight end prospect in the country. Campbell and Julian Nixon will more than likely see limited minutes behind the experience at Heupel’s disposal.
Trinity Bell, a three-star prospect out of Albertville, Alabama, is a promising recruit that suffered a season-ending torn ACL in January, placing uncertainty on his upcoming freshman season.
It is worth noting that every veteran tight end on Tennessee’s roster redshirted their freshman season. Whether or not Heupel and offensive coordinator Alex Golesh will follow suit concerning practices of years past remains to be seen.