KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s one thing that Tennessee didn’t get any players on offense or defense voted first-team preseason All-SEC, but an NFL talent evaluator lobbed an even more alarming observation about the Vols.
And it has nothing to do with a lack of talent.
An NFL scout told SEC Country that the draft-eligible players on the 2017 Tennessee roster not only lack star power, but more notably, toughness.
That’s probably one reason Coach Butch Jones’ 2017 slogan is D.A.T. — Details, Accountability and Toughness.
It’s probably also why Jones emphasized heart and character in his last two recruiting classes.
Tennessee had six players drafted in April, but the Vols might not have half that many picks in 2018.
Tennessee recruits’ star ratings don’t add up
There are plenty examples of players on the team who came to Knoxville with high star ratings as recruits but have yet to produce any results, even as they enter their junior and senior seasons.
The scout did indicate senior offensive linemen Jashon Robertson, Brett Kendrick and Coleman Thomas are viewed as borderline draft picks at this stage.
Defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Todd Kelly Jr. are on the radar but have more to prove if they want to hear their names called, the scout said.
Evan Berry could make an NFL roster in 2018 based on his extraordinary return skills, but it would also help him to get the ball in his hands in other ways, be that as a defensive back or third-down weapon on offense.
Outside of the seniors, receiver Jauan Jennings is the only player who registers at this stage, the scout said, as the other juniors “haven’t really done anything.”
The scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said senior tight end Ethan Wolf has the size for the NFL at 6 feet, 6 inches and 258 pounds, “but he’s like a lot of those [Tennessee] guys, pretty damn soft.”
The Vols enjoyed their best offseason under Jones, working with strength-and-conditioning coach Rock Gullickson to harden their bodies.
Scout: Ethan Wolf, senior underachiever
The scout said Wolf has been the biggest underachiever among the Tennessee seniors, in terms of what he has to work with athletically vs. how he has performed.
“You won’t see a tight end block as bad as Ethan Wolf. He avoids contact, one of the softest players I’ve ever seen on film,” the scout said. “The amount of times the guy he’s supposed to be blocking makes a hit on the ball carrier is unbelievable. Just turn on the film or watch him in games, it’s right there.”
Wolf is one of the most likable players on the team, and he’s become a media favorite because of his pleasant demeanor and insightful comments.
But Wolf knows better than anyone he needs to improve in key areas if he is to take his game to the next level.
“Absolutely, it’s something we talked about this offseason, you have to be real transparent and talk about yourself, because physicality is something you don’t want them to think you’re not good enough at,” Wolf said.
“I 100-percent agree that I can improve in every area of my game, and if that’s what they are saying that I’ve got to be more physical at the point of attack, then by gosh I’m gonna come out here and work the one-man sled and do stuff until I throw up to get to that point,” he said. “It’s definitely been a focus and focal point of my practices thus far.”
A bigger, better Ethan Wolf?
Tennessee offensive coordinator Larry Scott talks a big game when it comes to toughness, but Scott is also the tight ends coach and Wolf is his player — and starting players are a direct reflection of their position coaches.
And Wolf is one of the players who made the most of his offseason in the weight room with Gullickson.
“This offseason after the bowl game I knew I wanted to play heavier,” Wolf said. “Last year by week 6-7 I was around 245, and I felt I could play comfortably at the 255-pound range. I committed myself day-in and day-out this offseason to make sure I improved my strength and speed and explosion.”
The NFL scout said Wolf does indeed need to show more speed — along with more toughness.
“He’s OK in the passing game as long as no one is around him,” the scout said. “He does have good hands and good body control, but he’s not fast, and he doesn’t do anything after the catch. He doesn’t win the 50-50 balls over the middle like Jauan Jennings does for them.
“Wolf will turn down passes over the middle instead of laying himself out and taking the hit. So it’s not about the weight, it’s about heart and pride and not wanting that ball carrier behind you to take those hits because you missed your block.”
The scout said Wolf has the smarts and disposition to be an NFL player, but because of his lack of toughness “he’s going to be surprised when the draft rolls around.”