KNOXVILLE – The injury situation at tight end went from bad to worse in Friday’s scrimmage. Sophomore tight end Brendan Downs dislocated his patella (knee), and will miss a significant amount of time, coach Derek Dooley confirmed at the Vols’ media day on Saturday.
Dooley said he expects Downs to return at some point in 2012, but he didn’t know the time frame as of Saturday.
“It was kind of a scary moment,” Dooley said of Downs’ injury. “It’s actually good news that he’ll be back this season . We came in (the spring) saying that tight end is a strength, and now it’s a problem.”
The position has been decimated over the last three months. Sophomore Cameron Clear was dismissed in May after being charged with theft, senior Mychal Rivera has been limited with a sprained knee and freshman Justin Meredith has been limited with a lingering hamstring issue.
Former defensive tackle Joseph Ayres was brought over from defense to help the position, but he is now out with a sprained ankle. That leaves senior fullback/tight end Ben Bartholomew and freshman fullback Justin King, who also was brought over from defense, as the only healthy players at those two spots.
Meredith and Rivera are expected to play when the Vols open their season Aug. 31 against NC State, but neither will be 100 percent. Dooley admits the position is in crisis, but he doesn’t want to throw out everything the Vols have put in because of it.
“We’re not going to change the offense, but we’re going to have to move some things around,” he said. “(Bartholomew) is kind of the putty guy in that area. He’s done a great job.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will be the man responsible for “scheming around” the recent rash of injuries. Chaney, a former tight ends coach for the St. Louis Rams, said the low numbers will make it an NFL-like scenario for the Vols when it comes to finding people to play the fullback and tight end spots.
“You can draw that analogy,” Chaney said. “In the NFL you might keep two tight ends and a fullback active, so you’re dealing with three people. That might be about where we’re at. I don’t want to let an injury change our complete identity of what we become.”
Downs is also just the latest of many underclassmen to go down with an injury. Linebacker Christian Harris (ACL), linebacker Kenny Bynum (meniscus) and wide receiver Alton ‘Pig’ Howard (hand) are all freshmen who have been on the shelf for a significant amount of time. Dooley also announced that freshman wide receiver Jason Croom has a hamstring injury, but he declined to say how long he will be out.
Harris progressing: Linebacker Christian Harris spoke to the media for the first time since tearing his ACL in spring practice. The Vols are thin at inside linebacker depth, and they are hoping to get Harris back as soon as possible.
“I’m doing a lot of change of direction stuff, I’m getting to run and cut a little more,” he said. “I’m probably going to set up a meeting with the doctor soon to get cleared for seven-on-seven and some individual stuff soon.”
Harris didn’t want to guarantee a return date, but his best estimate is that he could be back playing within a month and a half.
“It’s frustrating because I got a taste in the spring,” he said. “I was just excited to start getting some reps, so I just have to get healthy again and get back to practice.”
Big expectations for Tiny: Sophomore left tackle Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson is the only new starter on the offensive line. Chaney said the Vols are looking for a more physical attitude up front, and he thinks Richardson brings that.
“I feel real comfortable saying he’s a real physical football player with a great attitude,” Chaney said. “I’m really excited to watch him play. He’s a hard-working kid, a Tennessee Vol through and through. I love him, I love his family and I can’t wait to see him run out there and play for us.”
When asked if run blocking is Richardson’s strength, Chaney said it’s only part of what he brings.
“He’s big, that’s his strength,” Chaney said of the 6-foot-6, 330-pound sophomore. “I like big.”