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Tennessee assistant coach Alec Abeln breaks down tight end position

Two vets and a lot of youth.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 15 Tennessee Orange & White Game Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the more underrated losses off of last year’s team was veteran tight end Princeton Fant, who did a little bit of everything for the Tennessee offense. However, the Volunteers were able to bring back veteran Jacob Warren, while adding senior McCallan Castles. What could have been a very young position in 2023 is now set to be led by a couple of guys that have played a lot of football.

However, the depth isn’t great. Behind those two is former four-star prospect Ethan Davis, who really flashed during the Orange and White Game. Beyond that? It gets dicey pretty quickly with a major lack of experience.

The good news is that the Volunteers will once again be leaning on a couple of veterans. Castles, who transferred in from UC Davis, has some NFL buzz to him. The 6-5, 233 pounder is a former four-star prospect who will be looking to put out a season’s worth of SEC tape ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft.

“I mean from the Cal Davis tape you see a playmaker.” Tennessee tight ends coach Alec Abeln said of Castles. “He is really athletic, so a guy that’s not afraid to stick his face in it. He’s played in a bunch of different systems and knows football at a base level pretty well. This spring, kind of the same thing with Ethan (Davis). He’s trying to figure it out. He’s obviously older, he’s played a lot more so it came a little bit cleaner for him, but now that he knows what he’s doing, being able to really focus on the detailed things and play fast.”

Castles caught six touchdowns over the past two seasons at UC Davis. He’ll likely slot in behind Warren, who enters year five with the program. Warren has never been one to put up numbers, but he understands the ins and the outs of a very challenging position. Now with Fant gone, Warren’s volume should rise considerably.

“I think he’s gotten better, just body control in the route,” Abeln said of Warren. “I think he’s gonna surprise a lot of people in space this year and I think he’s gotten a lot better at that stuff just from a fundamental level. He’s gotta continue to get stronger, continue work on every aspect of this game. And the biggest thing to me is just playing with more confidence.”

Tennessee’s in good hands with those two veterans, but the most intriguing piece of this room is going to be third on the depth chart. Four-star freshman Ethan Davis had everyone excited back in the spring, where he gave us all a glimpse at his potential. Unfortunately his day was cut short due to a shoulder injury, but he’s back and ready to continue learning this fall.

“Just an attention to detail,” Abeln said of Davis. “I think a lot of times you can kind of get in the right area and kind of do the right thing, but when your feet are perfect and your technique is perfect, like the detail of things has come a long way. And I think some of that he’s gotta continue to take steps. It’s nowhere near where it will be, but when you really know what your assignment is, it allows you to focus on that stuff.

“He’s gotten to the point this summer where with everything that’s in currently, he’s knows what he’s supposed to do, where he’s supposed to be, how it’s supposed to look. Now he gets focused on just doing it the way we want.”

Could Davis push for playing time? It would be a surprise, but maybe he’ll have a play or two in the offense. The biggest thing for Davis is simply being ready to roll. Tennessee is one play away from needing him on the field, so having the true freshman ready with a baseline of what to do is critical.

Looking ahead, the room could be led by Davis next year. He’ll be joined by four-star athlete Jonathan Echols, along with raw four-star athlete Emmanuel Okoye. For Okoye, it’s all about getting the basics down in 2023.

“He’s got chance to be the most athletic guy to have ever played the position,” Abeln said. “I truly believe that he is as physically gifted as anybody I’ve ever been around. He’s got continued to make steps every day, but just from a raw athletic standpoint, the ceiling is unlimited.”

Okoye is likely in for a redshirt season, but next spring we’ll get a true look at what he can potentially bring to the table.

Camp continues throughout the month of August, leading into Tennessee’s opener on September 2nd against Virginia.