KNOXVILLE — Jason Croom hasn’t played in a real football game since Nov. 29, 2014.
Tennessee’s fifth-year senior sustained a knee injury during a December practice for the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa, missing the entire 2015 season.
Finally healthy and hungry, Croom is itching to showcase his new talents as a tight end, transitioning from receiver during the injury.
“I’m excited about the season,” Croom said Saturday.
“I’m ready to get back out there. I’m happy to be out here, period.”
Injuries have maligned Croom’s career, as the 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior missed most of his freshman season with a shoulder injury. In 2013 and 2014, he recorded 39 receptions for 574 yards and six touchdowns, but the former 4-star prospect has never developed into the consistent playmaker Tennessee hoped for.
That could soon change.
Croom believes moving to tight end will allow him to making an increased impact on the field in 2016. While he’s slowly learning the finer details of the position, Croom has already proven to be a mismatch in the red zone early in training camp.
“I can bring the same finesse I had as a receiver,” Croom said.
“I’m a big body. They flex me out in the slot (frequently).”
Tight ends coach Larry Scott has been “really encouraged” by Croom’s development, saying the tight end offers Tennessee unique “versatility.”
“He has the ability to be able to play at a lot of different places,” Scott said.
“Just move him around and use him as flexible as we want to.”
Scott complimented Croom’s ability to “retain information and learn and handle” a new position. For Croom, the hardest element of transitioning to tight end is playing in the trenches, learning how to “read defenses” and improving his hand-technique while run-blocking.
“I told myself I’m going to really work on the run game, so I don’t limit myself to one thing (as a pass-catcher),” he said, adding he regularly asks questions so he can improve everyday.
“Being down there with the big guys, you’ve got to bring it every play.”
OT competition remains ‘wide open’
A week into camp, Tennessee is no closer to naming starting offensive tackles.
Head coach Butch Jones said the battle for left and right tackle remains “wide open.”
Redshirt freshman left tackle Drew Richmond, a former bluechip recruit in the 2015 class, saw snaps with the first-team offense during 11-on-11 work on Thursday, with sophomore Chance Hall repping at right tackle. Richmond, Hall and junior Brett Kendrick, a swing tackle who can play guard, too, are all battling for two spots.
“We don’t have a left tackle or a right tackle (yet),” Jones said Saturday.
“We’ll see where that goes.
“That’s not to say they’re not talented. They’re all very, very talented. … They’re competing and doing a great job. But those positions are wide open.”
This & that
While Jones was frustrated with Tennessee’s overall pad level following Saturday’s practice, he did praise the work of backup offensive lineman Jack Jones and guard Dylan Wiesman, saying both players are pushing junior center Coleman Thomas for a starting job. Thomas — a preseason Remington Award Watch List member — started all 13 games in 2015. … Earlier in the week, quarterback Josh Dobbs complemented sophomore receiver Preston Williams’ training camp thus far, saying, “He continues to progress. He continues to grow. He’s going up and making plays on the outside, doing the little things like blocking on the permitter, getting open in the short game. Him and (junior receiver) Josh Malone are in constant battle with each other. It’s great to see that dynamic from Josh Malone on one side and Preston on the other.” … Tennessee will hold a closed practice Sunday before taking Monday off.
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com