published Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

University of Tennessee tight ends see opportunities

Tight end Brendan Downs (No. 85) runs with the ball during the 2012 Orange and White game.
Tight end Brendan Downs (No. 85) runs with the ball during the 2012 Orange and White game.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — As many Tennessee players probably did 96 days ago, Brendan Downs hopped on his computer when he heard Cincinnati's Butch Jones had been hired to coach the Volunteers.

The tight end had one particular bit of research in mind.

"I looked at how Cincinnati used their tight ends," he said after the Vols' indoor practice Tuesday morning. "That's obviously going to affect the next two years of my life, so I was really interested in that."

Downs liked what he saw. In Jones' final season at Cincinnati, tight end Travis Kelce led the Bearcats in receptions (45), receiving yards (722) and touchdown catches (eight).

"I'm really going to like that," thought Downs, the 6-foot-5, 254-pounder from Bristol.

With the loss of Mychal Rivera and Ben Bartholomew to graduation, Downs, who has six catches for 73 yards and one touchdown in his career, presumably slides to the top of the depth chart.

"It's really totally different," said Downs, who returned sooner than expected from dislocating his kneecap in August and played hurt last season. "It took a little adjusting for me, but I've realized what I've got to do to make that happen. I'm really focused on that right now."

The versatile Justin King, redshirt freshman Justin Meredith and former defensive lineman Joseph Ayres are among the other options this spring at tight end, which must replace the 47 catches, 664 yards and six touchdowns Rivera and Bartholomew provided last season.

"I think Justin brings a level of athleticism to us," Jones said. "He can do a number of different things. He has a great skill set in terms of physicality, but also in the athletic part as well.

"The good thing about the tight end is their skill sets complement each other, but again, that's a position that really has to have a great sense of urgency each and every day."

An intriguing athlete, the 6-2, 235-pound King began his Tennessee career last preseason at linebacker before moving to offense, where he played the fullback/H-back position and ran his own wildcat package that had success with the triple option in limited opportunities.

"I just feel like I can bring so much to the table, but at the same time I'm doing what Coach Jones wants me to do," said King, who played tight end as a freshman at Dunwoody High School in Georgia but played quarterback his final three seasons.

"If Coach Jones tells me next week he wants [me] to play defense, I'll do it. I'm trying to win games, and I'm trying to bring Tennessee back to the top. I'm just trying to help this team win."

The 6-5, 223-pound Meredith enrolled a year ago but missed all of last season with a lingering hamstring problem.

"It's been tough for him, but he's been out here practicing and he's been coming along," Downs said. "I've seen some good things out of him. We're all hoping that he'll stay injury-free and keep getting better."

Randolph's return

Nearly six months removed from tearing his ACL against Florida, safety Brian Randolph is practicing again, though Jones said the Vols must "pick our spots" with one of their most important defensive players, a Freshman All-SEC selection in 2011.

"He's every bit what we thought he'd be, he's bringing great leadership and he's doing a great job," Jones said.

Survival mode

Jones talked at length during his 10-minute post-practice meeting with the media about wanting to see a greater sense of urgency from his team with the first full-pads practice slated for Thursday.

"I'm going home last night, and we have a number of players in the indoor [field] working on their fundamentals by themselves," he said. "That shows them that we're hungry and they're eager, but we have to have more guys come to practice with more of a sense of urgency. What happens is as practice comes, and you ask endurance, you become in survival mode, and that's where your leadership is born is your times that you're fighting through things.

"As much as anything, I'm trying to evaluate who our leadership is as well."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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