Tight ends make early strides

Published 5:32 pm Monday, August 7, 2023

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Rain kept the Vols indoors Thursday morning for the second practice of preseason training camp as Tennessee football completed a 19-period workout in helmets and shorts on the turf field inside the Anderson Training Center.

Recently named to 247Sports’ 30 Under 30 rising coaching stars in college football, UT tights ends coach Alec Abeln met with the media after practice. Topics of discussion included the veteran tandem of sixth-year senior Jacob Warren and graduate transfer McCallan Castles and the development of Nigerian newcomer Emmanuel Okoye.

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Warren enters his sixth year with the program in 2023 and brings a tremendous amount of SEC experience to Josh Heupel’s high octane offense. The Knoxville native serves on Tennessee’s leadership council and provides a confident, veteran presence for Abeln’s tight end room, which the first-year position coach addressed on Thursday.

“I started sleeping a lot better,” Abeln said of Warren’s decision to return for a sixth year. “I mean, it changes everything in terms of you knew that you had at least one guy who you could count on to go to war with, and at that point just trying to find the pieces of who else was going to be there with him. But man, it really made it easier for us.

“I think he’s going to 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 has to continue to get stronger, continue to work on every aspect of his game. The biggest thing to me is just playing with more confidence.”

The Vols added five tight ends to the roster this past offseason, including Castles who joined the program in December and went through Orange Bowl practices before enrolling at UT in January. The redshirt senior from South Lake Tahoe, California, started 28 games at UC Davis, reeling in 68 catches for 928 yards and nine touchdowns over the course of three seasons with the Aggies.

“From McCallan’s UC Davis tape you see a playmaker, really athletic,” Abeln said. “You see a guy not afraid to stick his face in it. A guy that’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 he came a little bit cleaner form. But now that he knows what he’s doing, being able to really focus on the details and play fast.”

Another newcomer tight end whose measurables stand out is Okoye, a freshman from Anambra, Nigeria, who stands 6-5 and weighs in at 230 pounds. He enrolled at Tennessee in the summer of 2023 after spending a year at the NFL Academy in Loughborough, United Kingdom, and has already been acknowledged for his athleticism by Heupel and Abeln during early preseason media sessions.

“(Emmanuel) has a chance to be the most athletic guy to play the position,” Abeln said. “I truly believe that. He is as physically gifted as anyone I’ve ever been around. He’s got to continue to make steps every day, but just from a raw athletic standpoint, the ceiling is unlimited.”

Intensity will ramp up Friday as the Big Orange will put on shoulder pads for the first time this fall. Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary and select defensive players are scheduled to meet with the media afterwards.

Freshman linebackers Jalen Smith and Jeremiah Telander also spoke with media on Thursday, praising their position coach and the culture built by Heupel and his staff over the last two years on Rocky Top.

“Coach BJ, he’s like my second father, being away from home,” Smith said. “I really love him. He’s a great guy. That’s one of the reasons that I came here. He stays on me, but it’s really just a loving relationship. He helps keep me on the right page.”

“I believe the coaching staff, with the past two seasons they’ve had, the culture here is one of the best in college football,” Telander remarked on his decision to come to Tennessee. “I think we all saw that, and that’s why we came here. The culture, the coaching staff, just the whole place itself.”