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Tight end remains a wildcard for Tennessee

A few intriguing options — and very little experience.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Through all the talk about quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, the tight end position remains as a complete wildcard entering the 2021 season. Tennessee essentially punted at the position last season, following a late injury in the preseason to Austin Pope. History repeated itself this fall, as Pope was forced to retire after trying to make a comeback.

So what’s left? The Volunteers have a few interesting options — in fact there’s some talent on the depth chart. The obvious answer is Princeton Fant, who has bounced around the Tennessee offense during his career. He’s now settled in at tight end and is expected to lead the group as a senior. Fant, standing in at 6-2, 240 pounds, caught just ten passes in ten games.

Next up is Jacob Warren, who technically made five starts in 2020. Warren caught just six passes, however, his biggest coming against Texas A&M late in the year. The 6-6, 246 pound tight end now enters his junior season with a big chance to step up and contribute.

After Warren comes true freshman Miles Campbell, who has really made some noise since joining the team during the spring. The four-star recruit brings athletic ability to the table and might just be ready to contribute in the passing game right off of the bat. Veteran reserve Hunter Salmon has also been in the picture.

“Our two guys that have been here and played, have done a really good job,” Josh Heupel said of Fant and Warren. “You know, Hunter Salmon is a young guy that has continued to do a really good job. Miles Campbell has done a really good job, as well. I think that’s a position that we’re gonna have to continue to cultivate and grow as we go through the season. The depth part of it is something obviously that as we lost Austin (Pope), you know, placed more of an emphasis on developing those young guys.”

Heupel’s starting tight end at UCF last season, Jake Hescock, caught just ten passes for 53 yards in 2020, three of which went for touchdowns. In 2018, Michael Colubiale caught 21 passes for 278 yards. Albert Okwuegbunam was his last big time contributor at the position, putting up over 400 yards and 11 scores in 2017 at Missouri.

There’s obviously more to the position than catching passes, however. It’s about carrying out your assignment in the run blocking scheme, sometimes being asked to pass protect, and even getting downfield to block on screens. It’s a complex position, and Tennessee likely doesn’t have just one guy ready to do it all.

The Volunteers also have a true wildcard at the spot, converting Julian Nixon to the position to open fall camp. Nixon signed with Tennessee as a four-star receiver, but his 6-3, 245 pound frame obviously fit better at tight end. That’s not an easy transition to make, and that process is ongoing as camp starts to wrap up.

“I do think it is a home for him,” Heupel said of Nixon. “A guy that played out on the perimeter a lot. The stuff you’re doing inside the box, whether that’s on the line or off the ball, is relatively new for him. He’s a smart kid that cares. He’s learning how to compete on a consistent basis and really strain, inside in particular. Natural as a pass-catcher. Has a bright future.”

So will anyone emerge and really take hold of the primary spot at tight end in 2021? Don’t count on it. You’ll see plenty of Fant and Warren to start, but it’s going to be interesting to see how they work in Miles Campbell. The depth here isn’t great either, so it’s important to get a guy like Nixon up to speed just in case.

While this position won’t account for a ton of production, it’s still a vital aspect of redzone play, and a guy like Jacob Warren certainly could make a different with his 6-6 frame.

Tennessee could use something — heck, anything — out of this group this fall. Will they get it?