A Healthy Dose of Competition
Aug. 12, 2014

By Brian Rice

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Heavy use of the tight end is a staple of the system that Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian want to run at Tennessee.

A season ago, those plans were derailed by injuries and a lack of bodies at the position. The injuries have healed and the recruiting process has given UT new weapons, meaning the tight end is back in play for the Volunteers.

"Last year, we had a ton of injuries at that position and by the end of the season, I think we only had one healthy tight end," Bajakian said. "That limited us tremendously from a personnel standpoint. Now, to have the two freshmen come in, with Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, and to have A.J. Branisel and Brendan Downs and Alex Ellis back healthy, it allows us a lot more flexibility from a formation standpoint and a personnel standpoint."

Helm and Wolf both came into the program as highly-touted recruits, part of UT's top-5 class in 2014. Both also enrolled in January to have the opportunity to go through spring practice, an opportunity that paid dividends.

"It's amazing what 15 practices do in the spring," Helm said of the comfort level he feels now on the field compared to where he started. "Just being able to see the defense and adjust the offense, it's a lot faster game and you have to adjust mentally."



Wolf had similar thoughts on the impact the spring had on his ability to contribute this fall.

"We just learned everything in the spring," he said. "It was tough to learn all the reads and defensive fronts on the fly. Now that we've had a lot of time since then, the game is coming to me easier and I can play a lot faster."

Both players have earned rave reviews from the coaching staff for their contributions in training camp.

"Those guys are eager," tight ends coach Mark Elder said. "Those guys are excited, they are competing because they want to play, as does the rest of the group, but we're seeing that on a day-in, day-out basis.

The competition started before either arrived at Tennessee. Both knew the other was coming coming to campus, but the competition for playing time didn't scare either one off. The staff explained the offense they wanted to run at UT to both players, illustrating how they would both be used and how short the path to the field could be.

"They talked a lot about how they had used the tight end in past years and how they want to use it here," Wolf said of the recruiting process. "We saw it a little bit last year, but they didn't have very many tight ends to work with due to injuries. I'm fired up to see what we do this year."

Part of not shying away from the competition was a knowledge that Jones' offense often features multiple tight ends, giving both the opportunity to play together.

But whether they on the field at the same time or not, there is still only one football used on each play. Competition to be the one that gets it in his hands drives every player at the position. And seeing fellow tight ends make big plays raises up the whole group in more ways than one.

"We all feed off of each other," Wolf said. "When someone makes a good play, we're the first ones there to tell them 'good play,' but it also makes us want to make another good play and bring pride to our position."

The relationship between Helm and Wolf began building once both committed and continued once both arrived on campus in January.

"We're great friends, but we're great competitors, so we're always going to be fighting to get more playing time with each other," Helm said. "At the end of the day, I love to see him do well and he loves to see me do well."

Helm also loves what he sees from the other positions on the offense. The combination of speed and power at wide receiver and running back actually plays right into the hands of a multi-talented tight end.

"We have a lot of talent on the perimeter, [the defense] has to respect almost every position," Helm said. "So at times the tight end goes unnoticed. That's hopefully an area where we can get some big plays."



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