With so much emphasis on who will be catching passes for the Vols this season at the wide receiver position, it is easy to overlook the other position that will be catching balls from Justin Worley on Saturday against Austin Peay.
The tight end position is a busy position in the system of UT coach Butch Jones and his offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. In their three years at the University of Cincinnati, the tight ends caught a combined 82 passes and scored 12 touchdowns.
In 2012 the Bearcats starting tight end Travis Kelce was the team's leading receiver in all three major receiving categories. He reeled in 45 catches for 722 yards and eight scores. To put that in perspective, statistically, that's a better season then former Vols, and current NFL tight ends, Luke Stocker and Mychal Rivera ever had in their careers.
The position is just as important to the run as it is the pass and it contributed to three 1000 yard rushers in Jones' tenure at Cincinnati, a feat the Vols were only able to accomplish once in the same period of time.
"We have challenged them, and they have not blinked," Jones said about the tight ends on Aug. 14. "They keep coming back, but again, to play winning football, we need that position to do well for us. Again, it's a standard, it's an expectation of the way we're going to play football and we're not going to compromise. We're going to keep demanding."
It's safe to say that whoever lines up at tight end will have an integral part in the offense, but who exactly will Coach Jones trust to handle such an important role in the offense? The depth chart released on Monday lists junior Brendan Downs as the starter, but tight ends coach Mark Elder wants to see more out of the 6'5" tight end.
"Brendan Downs has been having a good fall camp," Elder said. "He still has a lot of things he needs to improve upon. He has a high expectation level of himself, as do I, and so as far as that's concerned he's doing well, but I'd still like to see some bigger steps going forward."
As the only player on the roster with any collegiate experience at the position, Jones has put a lot of pressure on Downs to step up his game, a challenge that he has accepted.
"That's what I want," Downs said. "I want him to be on me, I want him to push me. It's camp, so it's difficult. That's what I want. I want to get better every day, so it's good for me."
As important as the tight end position is, the biggest concern for Coach Elder is finding suitable backups to prevent Downs from wearing down early in games.
"The big thing is that we need to get our depth going," Elder said. "We need the next couple of guys to step up and show that they are worthy of playing time so that we can be in a situation where we have two guys, three guys in and be rotating those guys. So that's the important thing is building our depth so that we can get into those two tight end sets and we can sub guys out."
Among those who could provide depth at the position is junior Woody Quinn, who will suit up in the Orange and White for the first time this season after transferring from Santa Ana College in California. UT is Quinn's fourth college. He started out as a volleyball player at Pepperdine, meaning acclimation to SEC football has not been simple.
"We've been hard on Woody," Elder said. "He's a very prideful individual, it's important to him there's no question about that, so as far as that's concerned he's taking that hard, but not losing confidence. He understands that I'm coaching him, that coach Jones is coaching him to get better and that's our ultimate goal..."
The thing that we always say is that you don't worry when you're being coached, you worry when you're not because that would mean we're not sure you can do this, but we're on him because we believe he's got ability and he's going to be able to contribute."
Quinn was listed third on the opening week depth chart behind Downs and former defensive end Joseph Ayres.
"I see us moving in the right direction," Elder said. "Consistency still has to be there, but the guys have been positive, they've been excited about coming out and improving, now it's just all about the execution of every single play and getting it right every single time."