As Tennessee tries to find an adequate number of receivers in its spread offense, there may be another option.
If things fall into place as Tennessee’s coaches hope, the Vols will feature an eclectic group of tight ends this fall. The Vols have a suddenly grizzled veteran, a converted receiver and a trio of projects that have shown enough upside to be optimistic about.
Of course, the go-to tight end is Ethan Wolf. For those that don’t think a tight end has a role in a spread offense, think again. The junior was tied for fourth among Tennessee’s players last season with 23 receptions and was fourth overall in yards (301). Wolf, who has started 23 of 25 games during his college career, also had two touchdown catches in 2015. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said it’s time for Wolf to elevate his play.
“The big thing for all of these players is understanding that they’re not freshmen and sophomores anymore,” Jones said. “They’re three years into the football program now so they have to think like that. They have to think like older players. I think sometimes reality doesn’t hit you that ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in my third year of a football program. I’m not in my first year or second year.’ So it’s how you grow and develop. We’ve really challenged Ethan with that.”
After Wolf, things get interesting. Tennessee opened spring practice by moving former receiver Jason Croom to tight end. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 246 pounds, the senior has the frame. However, does he have the durability? Croom has suffered numerous injuries during his time in Knoxville, but he could add to Tennessee’s athleticism if he can stay healthy. Croom missed the entire 2015 season following knee surgery.
“I like his mindset,” tight ends coach Larry Scott said. “More than anything, it’s just his mentality and his mindset towards overall improvement and becoming a complete tight end in every facet, fundamentally, technique-wise, route running, film study, the mental part of it, the whole recovery part of it.
“It’s understanding where you’re getting to the point in your career where you’re a veteran player and there’s a lot bigger pieces to the puzzle than just going out and playing. It’s preparation and those type of things. He’s really embraced it and done a good job.”
It’s a challenging move. In addition to reading pass coverages, Croom now will have to learn blocking schemes, as he’ll be asked to play inside and outside the tackle box.
“It’s about not overwhelming him,” Scott said. “Let’s pick something we need to get better at that day. Let’s attack that and get better each and every day. Every opportunity we have to get better at it, let’s make sure we’re improving. That steady improvement, once that foundation is built, will put you in pretty good position. It’s him letting his guard down and his ego down.”
Croom isn’t the first Vol to make a move to tight end. Germany native Jakob Johnson did so last season as a sophomore, playing extensively on special teams. Sophomore Neiko Creamer made the full-time move to tight end after his freshman season in which he also played linebacker. Wolf’s brother, redshirt freshman walk-on Eli Wolf, also has garnered praise from Tennessee’s coaches.
“I like to tell those guys at the tight end position that next to the quarterback, you have the next most things to go through in your mind before the ball is snapped … You have to be able to take in information, process it pretty quickly and get going,” Scott said.
With Croom’s athleticism and his career coming to a close, he’s certainly the most intriguing of Tennessee’s tight ends. With just months to prepare, it remains to be seen if he can truly become a threat. Scott has done his best to motivate Croom as he heads into his final season.
“He truly now understands how important the game truly is for him and has been for him,” Scott said. “He’s starting to understand this is the reason why he’s even here and has his degree at this point. I asked him, ‘Jason, if you don’t have football, would you have your college education?’
“Those are the things you need to relish and have an appreciation for, that allow you to become a better player. Once you realize that and understand what that truly means, you’ll start to develop as a player and he’s doing a good job of that.”