There is no secret how important the 2019 recruiting class is to Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee Volunteers. In multiple interviews this season, Pruitt referenced needing to get his own guys into the program before they could compete at the level they wanted. While Pruitt and Company recruited far better than anticipated during their brief time with the Vols in the 2018 cycle, the combination of a 4-8 season and the handicaps resulting from an odyssey of a coaching search clearly hampered them. The 2019 class represents Jeremy Pruitt’s first class at Tennessee in which he and his staff have had a full year to assemble the players they want. Due to the talent of these players and the emphasis Pruitt has placed on wanting to get his own players into the program, expect to see the young men from this class on the field early and often. Here's an idea of what to expect on the field through Spring Ball and into the fall. We continue our Player Profile series by looking at Cartersville, Georgia product Jackson Lowe.
That Tennessee’s offense struggled at times through the 2018 season was evident to anyone that watched the team play. The Vols were severely hampered by atrocious offensive line play that led to Jarrett Guarantano taking an absolute beating and Tennessee running backs searching for gaps that never materialized. A standard step to take when trying to help a struggling offensive line, for any coach, is to get a tight end on the field and keep him in to block. That is precisely what Tennessee was forced to do far too often in 2018, and while it did provide some much-needed support to the offensive line, it robbed Guarantano and the Vols of a dynamic receiving weapon. Dominick Wood-Anderson is an incredible athlete with excellent size, good hands, and staggering speed for his size. The rising senior is a match up nightmare for opposing defenses as a receiver, while also developing into a very good blocker, be it on the line or even in the backfield as a fullback. Unfortunately, his development as a blocker meant that he was too valuable in protection and in the running game to be utilized much as a receiver. Former offensive coordinator Tyson Helton also did not do a good job of designing plays to get the ball into Wood-Anderson’s hands. Behind Wood-Anderson, the Vols used several players, though none made a major impact. Eli Wolf left this offseason as a graduate transfer bound for Georgia, and the Vols return Wood-Anderson, an expected starter, Austin Pope, a steady contributor last season, and Latrell Bumphus, who the coaching staff is still trying to find a position home. The Vols have a few other reserve tight ends on the roster, but the lion’s share of the snaps last season went to the quartet of players mentioned, with Wood-Anderson being the biggest impact player, by far. The Vols’ new offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, likes to use tight ends. In his previous stint with UT, Chaney ran the offense that saw Mychal Rivera put up a pair of the more impressive seasons of any Volunteer tight end. Chaney will utilize the tight end position, often using more than one on the field at a time. That means that Tennessee needs someone to become a threat at the tight end spot besides Wood-Anderson, both to free Wood-Anderson up, and to provide Jarret Guarantano another weapon. This is where the four-star, Cartersville High School tight end, Jackson Lowe comes in.
Lowe is the prototype, modern, NFL tight end. At 6 feet 5 inches tall and 253 pounds, Lowe already has the size that college and professional teams covet in a tight end. He also comes from a program where he has been used like he will be at the next level. Cartersville lined Lowe up all over the field, on the end of the line in a traditional set, off the line, out in the slot, out wide, and even in the backfield on occasion. The familiarity that Lowe has with being moved around like a chess piece will serve him well, as Jim Chaney is likely to utilize Lowe and Wood-Anderson on the field together quite often. The ability to move one or both of the talented tight ends to a spot besides the end of the line means that Chaney can dictate match ups without the personnel grouping giving away any tendencies.
Lowe doesn’t just look the part of a big-time tight end, though, he has the skill and athletic ability to back it up. As a receiver, Lowe is a very smooth athlete. He is a long strider with fluid motion that works smoothly through his routes. This is not a tight end opponents can afford to give a free release to off the line. Lowe explodes out of his stance and accelerates to top speed much faster than would be anticipated of a player of his size. If a defensive end or linebacker fails to chip, Lowe has speed comparable to some big wide receivers, and will use that to get upfield in the seam in a hurry. If his quarterback can get a ball over the middle linebacker (or if the middle linebackers is out of position away from Lowe’s side), there is potential for an easy throw to turn into a monster gain. Lowe is one of the most dangerous tight ends in the class after he catches the ball, that receiver like speed coming into play if opponents are not in a position to wrap him up immediately. If he is hit in stride, Lowe can eat up yards in a hurry, more than once out running safeties with power five offers to the endzone in the open field. Besides his speed, Lowe can put that 253-pound frame to use downfield as well, running over and through would be tacklers, and using his surprising balance to run through and spin off contact to keep pushing for extra yards. Lowe regularly demonstrates the ability to use his body well, whether it is using his size to drive through a smaller defensive back, his long arms to create space and get a clean release, his wide frame to shield a defender off a ball, or his height and ball skills to go up and get a jump ball. Coming out of Cartersville, Lowe runs good routes for a high school tight end, up the crispness of his routes and cuts will be harped on at the next level by tight end coach Brian Niedermeyer. Lowe has an affinity for finding the soft spot in a zone, but at times he can struggle to create space with his routes. To his credit, that was regularly overcome thanks to his excellent body positioning and control, but if he can develop his routes to receiver quality to match his receiver like speed, he will be a lethal pass catcher for the Vols.
That said, catching the ball is only half of the job for a tight end, they also have to factor into the game as a blocker. Like Wood-Anderson, Lowe is a quality in-line blocker as an SEC tight end. He will have to make some adjustments to seeing the larger, more athletic defensive linemen, but as an early enrollee and with what he shows on tape, that is a challenge Lowe should rise to quickly. Lowe is not merely a capable blocker; he is a willing one. An asset to the run game, Lowe flashes a physicality and mean streak when blocking in the run game that will help his new team. Lowe can come inside to wash out a defensive end, he can get to the next level, lead block and neutralize a linebacker, and he can pancake nickel corners and safeties walking up in run support or to blitz. When he is kept in to help solidify pass protection, Lowe shows on tape that he can stonewall blitzing defensive backs to protect his quarterback. Lowe arrives at Tennessee as a complete tight end with a lot of polish and promise, that will have to focus on adjusting to SEC competition more than anything else.
Jackson Lowe may not start for Tennessee this season, but he is certainly going to be a major contributor. Expect to see Lowe and Wood-Anderson on the field a lot together this season and expect Jim Chaney to find creative ways to work the ball to both of these players. Lowe’s ability to be an asset as a blocker will also get him a quicker path to the field this fall, as he can help the running game or provide an additional weapon to Jarret Guarantano from an identical set. The Vols are going to have to manufacture points from matchups this season, and Lowe gives Chaney a valuable tool to bring that about, even as a true freshman.