KNOXVILLE — With less than a month remaining before Tennessee begins its 2012 season against NC State on Aug. 31, there’s still plenty of time to do some experimenting.
The Vols were doing just that at the hybrid tight end/fullback position in their first full-squad practice on Monday.
There isn’t much distinction between fullback and tight end in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s system. Both motion around the backfield and can easily line up with a hand on the ground on the line like a tight end or in the backfield like a more traditional fullback. Coach Derek Dooley likes what he has in senior Mychal Rivera and sophomore Brendan Downs, but he’s looking for more.
“No, I don’t feel good about the depth,” Dooley said. “I feel good about where Mychal and Brendan are, but I’m worried about the depth. (Freshman tight end) Justin Meredith still has a little nagging hamstring injury.”
Senior Ben Bartholomew, who started seven games as a fullback in 2011, and true freshman Justin King are part of the plan to add more depth. Dooley said Bartholomew has been fully integrated as a tight end as well as continuing his duties as a fullback. King, who has worked as a linebacker since enrolling in June, worked primarily with the offense on Monday.
“We moved Justin over there to try to get in that same kind of hybrid role because we’re short on bodies — we’ll see how he does,” Dooley said. “We’re not moving him there just to get through practice, we’re moving him because we think he can help us. We signed him as an athlete.”
The position lost depth in May when sophomore Cameron Clear was dismissed from the team after being charged with theft. Downs, who caught three passes for 34 yards in 2011, knew he had an opportunity to step up after that incident. The sophomore is up to 255 pounds after playing around 240 last year, and he added close to 30 pounds to his bench press.
“I’m pretty much just a lot stronger,” he said. “I’ve come a long way in the weight room; that’s helping me a lot on the field. I’m starting to really get the offense really well. Just getting on the field some in 2011 really helped me too.”
Miller excited to be back: Defensive end Corey Miller looked relieved to be back on the field after missing spring practice because of academic concerns. The junior, who has appeared in 25 games in his career, likes how he might fit into the new defense.
“I see it as a better fit,” Miller said. “I can understand the defense a lot better. I’m just going to take it on — see what I can do. But you’ve got to earn everything you get, I love the coaches, but they’re not going to give me anything. I’m going to work hard.”
Miller worked a graphic design job while he was away from the team in the spring. Dooley thinks he can be a contributor, especially in pass-rushing situations when the Vols go to a smaller look on the defensive line.
“It’s good getting him back,” Dooley said. “He’s not a huge guy, but he’s got some good twitch. This is his second chance. He kind of messed up in the classroom, hopefully he learned from it.”
Depth chart notes: The offense wasted no time getting Cordarrelle Patterson in the mix. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney put a three-wide receiver set on the field for the first play, and Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers and Patterson were in the formation. Rajion Neal was the first running back to get a carry, but Marlin Lane and Devrin Young each got first-team reps as well.
On the second team, Jacob Carter, Zach Rogers and Cody Blanc were the receivers. Alex Bullard worked at second-team right tackle, and senior Darin Gooch, who normally plays center, was at left tackle. Marcus Jackson and Kyler Kerbyson were the two guards running with that unit, while redshirt freshman Mack Crowder was the second center.
Vincent Dallas, who moved to the secondary from wide receiver over the offseason, has been working at both cornerback and safety.
Observations: A few quick-hitting observations from the open portion of Monday’s practice:
• Daniel McCullers (6-6, 380 pounds) and Omari Phillips (6-5, 350) made up what had to be the largest scout team defensive line in school history. That’s 730 pounds the UT offensive line had to move.
• Freshman wide receiver Jason Croom is among the most physically impressive newcomers. He is listed at 6-foot-5, 232 pounds, and he looks every bit of that. He’s physically reminiscent of former Georgia tight end Orson Charles, who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals.
• Rajion Neal, Cordarrelle Patterson, Marlin Lane, Quenshaun Waton, Devrin Young and Eric Gordon all practiced returning kicks.