Tennessee's Former Glory: Rebirth of the Tight End and Fullback Positions
In an earlier article, the Volunteers' Offensive Line was highlighted as the group that will be the key for this team's success, as well as for future versions of the Vols. That unit is one that looks to benefit enormously from Jeremy Pruitt's new attitude toward this team, as well as Tyson Helton's more pro style, power run, offensive scheme. While the offensive line stands to benefit the most, and could potentially become a strength for the team if they remain healthy, there is another group of players that stand to benefit dramatically from these changes: The Tight Ends and Fullbacks.
This is how dramatic the shift from the previous system is, under Butch Jones the Vols didn't even have a Fullback. Now, along with the Tight Ends, this group offers enough to believe the Tennessee offense can surprise teams this fall. Tight Ends and Fullbacks are different positions filled by players with similar skill sets. In modern college football, most players in one of these roles is going to be asked to play in some form of the other position at one point or another. For the purposes of this analysis and how Tennessee is likely to use the players at their disposal, think of this position group collectively more as H Backs.
In the Orange and White game, Tennessee fans saw a sight that has long been missing from the Vols, an I Formation as a staple on offense. This return to a traditional, more power type offense is not only something Tennessee fans have clamored for, it is something that is part of the history and identity of Tennessee football. Furthermore, it is a return to more fundamental football. Play great defense, run the ball well, throw off play action, be physical, be balanced, be efficient, and don't turn the ball over. Teams that do those things tend to win a lot of football games, and they have done so in every era of the sport. Everything about Jeremy Pruitt, from his attitude, to the coaches he hired, to the systems he has been putting in place, points to him wanting to mold Tennessee into a program that embodies those fundamentals. And nowhere is that going to be felt more strongly than in the way these H Back players are used and the return of that I Formation offense.
As we saw in the Orange and White Game, Tennessee looks ready to let Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan set the tone on offense while setting the table for everything else the Vols are going to do. Ty Helton appears to want to build this offense around the success of power running plays designed to go between the tackles. While Chandler may not have the size of Jordan or incoming graduate transfer Madre London, he showed last season that he is not afraid of running inside, and that he will not hesitate to feed a shoulder pad to an opposing defender. Chandler's explosive speed also means that when he is presented with a crack in the defense, even a slight one, he can take it all the way. That means that it will be imperative the Vols protect him and put quality blockers ahead of him. Furthermore, to get the most out of his incredible talents, Tennessee needs to come up with someone able to make those holes for Chandler, to make a hole where there isn't one, and to wall off a last chance defender allowing him to make the most of his opportunities. In Ty Helton's system, that player is going to be the fullback.
If the Volunteers are going to give up the opportunity to have an additional tight end or wide receiver on the field, then they are going to have to get their money's worth from the fullback position. That means finding a player that has the size and strength to be an impact run blocker, the speed to lead plays and make blocks at the second and third level, the football I.Q. to identify who his back most needs him to pick up, and the hands to be an able receiver out of the backfield when called upon. Playing fullback also requires a certain attitude. It takes a player that loves contact, a guy that is as excited as delivering a crushing block to a pursuing linebacker as the fans are about the long runs in creates. For the team that Tennessee wants to become, it ideally requires a player that becomes a Hole Factory. Some factories make brakes, some make toothbrushes, but the Vols need a fullback that simply makes holes every time he is called upon. For a team that didn't field a true fullback last season, that may seem like a tall order, however, the Vols may already have just the man for the job on the roster already.
Austin Pope is a redshirt sophomore from Knoxville. When he committed to the Vols it was to play as a Tight End, and while he will certainly see work at that position this fall, he could see work as the primary fullback for the Vols. In the Orange and White Game, Pope played with the first team offense, playing plenty of tight end, but also playing fullback when the Vols shifted to the I Formation. For a player that was billed as more of a receiving tight end, Pope made a few really nice blocks in the running game, one of those springing Ty Chandler for a long run when Pope met, then walled off, Quarte Sapp in the hole.
Making those solid blocks will be what gets a player the nod to take over at fullback for the Vols, but Pope showed the other dimension he can add to the offense in the spring game as well. On a misdirection play, Pope leaked out of the backfield and was hit with a pass from Jarret Guarantano. Pope caught the pass and immediately turned it upfield. He ran through several defenders and fought his way down to the one yard line, very nearly scoring on the play. That kind of physical nature as a receiver makes Pope a nice fit for what the Vols need, all while providing the versatility to play at multiple spots.
Versatility is going to be a theme for this group of Vols, and few guys will embody that word more than redshirt freshman LaTrell Bumphus. Bumphus is a player that both the previous and current coaching staffs have had difficulty in finding a side of the ball for, let alone a single position. Bumphus has excellent size and is a special athlete. When you look at his high school tape or see him on the field for the Vols, it is hard to believe a guy of his size can move like he does. Listed as a tight end for the White team this spring, Bumphus played essentially the same role as Pope did for the Orange team, lining up as a traditional tight end, and serving as the primary fullback. Bumphus is more raw than Pope, a more polished looking tight end. Bumphus is more of an athlete the Vols have worked to find a home for, that may just be the perfect fit at fullback. Bumphus is more physical than Pope, and that could likely translate into being a more aggressive lead blocker in the run game. While he has some catching up to do with Pope's contributions to the passing game, Bumphus is a big body with plenty of ability once the ball reaches him. This contrast of styles and the ensuing position battle could be an interesting one for the Vols, with the winner possibly showing more of what Pruitt and Helton want the offense to be long term.
Pope and Bumphus can both contribute for the Vols as receiving tight ends, but their opportunities to see the field often likely run through their ability to contribute at fullback as well. The Vols have a few players that look to get on the field more often as more prototypical tight ends on this roster, and one of them is a new face in Knoxville.
At 6 foot 5 inches and 255 pounds, Dominick Wood-Anderson is an absolute freak athlete. Wood-Anderson is simply faster than a player his size has any right to be. He runs routes and moves with the fluidity of a wide receiver, has stunning speed for his size, and is happy to initiate contact once he has the ball.
Wood-Anderson has room to improve his in line blocking, something Jeremy Pruitt and tight ends coach Brian Niedermeyer will demand of him, but there is a reason this young man was a Junior College All American and one of the most sought after JUCO players, number 1 rated TE, in this cycle. The reason is that Wood-Anderson is a game breaker at the tight end position.
Wood-Anderson is the guy everyone expects to win the job as Tennessee's starting tight end, and any questions to why can be directed to his highlight film. In a group of players that Tennessee can manufacture some offense with by creating and exploiting match up problems due to the overall versatility of the group as a whole, Wood-Anderson is the match up nightmare opposing defensive coordinators are going to sweat over. When he arrives on campus, Wood-Anderson will be a solid blocker in the run game, which will ensure.he stays on the field, but when he is called on as a receiver he can shine. For a defensive coordinator, who do you cover him with? Wood-Anderson is too fast for even most SEC linebackers to cover one on one, and even if a corner can stay with him, his size and strength mean he is likely to box the smaller defenders out for the ball and break many attempts to tackle him. That leaves covering him with a safety, but Wood-Anderson runs such good routes and has such speed that even good safeties will have difficulty in taking him away in space. Pair that skillset with Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway on the edges and a running game featuring Ty Chandler, and the caliber of weapon Wood-Anderson is comes into focus.
Dominick Wood-Anderson allows Ty Helton to stay in his base personnel and make the defense wrong however they try to stop the Vols. Load up to stop Chandler with an extra safety in run support? A quick out or slant to Wood-Anderson can become a 30 yard gain in a heartbeat, or a play action pass on a post could end up a touchdown. Play back and double Jennings or Callaway? Helton can line Wood-Anderson up to the side of the double team to gain a favorable matchup by forcing the defense to show the double on the receiver, pull the safety off to take Wood-Anderson, leaving a receiver one on one, or try to cover Wood-Anderson with a linebacker or backside safety. Play an extra DB, two safeties high, taking away the down field passing game? Helton will be content to run Ty Chandler into a light bow with Wood-Anderson serving as another capable blocker for the dynamic back. Wood-Anderson is a chess piece when it comes to matchups, but his presence on the field in a base offensive set is one opponents must respect for how dangerous he is. That flexibility and balance contribute to what can make Tennessee effective on offense this season, and Wood-Anderson might be the best example among the best group to demonstrate that.
Another player that should be expected to help the Vols at tight end this season is Eli Wolfe. The younger brother of four year starter for Tennessee Ethan Wolfe, Eli has shown some promise as a receiving tight end, particularly in this season's spring game. Wolfe is a smooth athlete at the position, with good hands that runs solid routes. He is more of pure tight end, able to be flexed out away from the formation at times, and unsurprisingly, reminds most that see him of his brother in how he plays the position. Wolfe has the talent to contribute for the Vols, but winning the job as the number one tight end will be a tall order against Wood-Anderson. Still, expect to see Tennessee use more two tight end sets this year, meaning Wolfe will get his shot to impact games as a receiver, almost certainly by being a player guaranteed a one on one matchup with a defender. Wolfe has enough talent to win those opportunities and make defenses pay, making him a sneaky weapon for this offense.
Sneaky weapons could be the best way to describe this entire group of athletes for Tennessee. It simply isn't expected by defenses to see a fullback or tight end break games open, but that is precisely what this group of players can do for Tennessee. Tyson Helton wants to run a pro style, balanced offense. He won't be looking to go fast all the time, but don't be shocked to see the Vols go no huddle regularly, just to keep a defensive grouping they like their chances against on the field. Let me illustrate it this way, on a third and short, the Vols could line up with two tight ends, a fullback, a running back, and one wide receiver. This personnel grouping screams that a run play is coming. The Vols could pick up a first down, go no huddle, and without substituting, line up in the shotgun with three receivers on the field. How? Wood-Anderson clearly has the ability to split out wide and play like a wide receiver if asked. Similarly, Eli Wolfe is very capable of flexing off the line, out to the slot, playing as a tight end in space. That would allow Austin Pope to move from fullback in the previous set up to be the in line tight end in the new alignment. This means the Vols could go no huddle, catch a team with a goal line defense on the field, pick up a first down, and attack that same heavy package the next play with multiple guys as receivers.
That type of versatility and balance within the offensive scheme allows Helton to use his formations and personnel groups as chess pieces. It gives a bright, offensvie mind the opportunity to change things up and manufacture offense, yards, and favorable matchups. Don't mistake how valuable this opportunity can be for the Vols, as the balance this group affords Tennessee can't be overstated. A single shift, man in motion, or position shift can allow these Vols to completely change the matchups, tendencies, and defensive thought processes they see, and allow them to turn around and break those tendencies without sacrificing efficacy. For an offensive coordinator like Helton, this balance is going to translate into points by allowing him to always make the defense wrong, to keep opponents guessing, and to get easy plays for his quarterbacks and running backs.
There is no doubt that much has changed for the Vols under Jeremy Pruitt, but perhaps the biggest is the attitude felt towards the coaches. Under Butch Jones, the Vols wewere going to stay within their system on offense. It was going to look very similar, and you could count on roughly the same things coming no matter what. Under Pruitt and Helton, the Vols will be a team that looks to manufacture offense from creative looks and by dictating personnel mismatches. The players looked at here are the pieces that allow these coaches to do those things and find different ways to attack a defense while keeping it off balance. If the Vols surprise people this year, then it will be in part due to contributions made by this group of versatile, sneaky players and the clever coaches that utilize their skills.