In 2013, Tennessee’s tight ends had a total of 15 catches for 98 yards. In 2014, true freshman tight end Ethan Wolf already has 13 catches for 115 yards in his first three games and is emerging as one of the Vols top weapons.
Despite missing one game, Wolf is third on the roster in receptions and fourth in yards. In two of his three games, Wolf has led the team in receptions and against Georgia he also led the team in receiving yards.
Against Utah State and Arkansas State, Wolf was mostly lined up as an H-Back and used as a blocker or slipped into the flat to be a checkdown option for quarterback Justin Worley. Against Georgia, Wolf had a breakout game as a downfield receiving threat.
Wolf has done a very good job of using his size and athleticism to get open versus man coverage. On the first play of the Georgia game, the Vols called Y Stick, a concept that puts the tight end (Y receiver) on a stick route while the slot receiver runs a quick out. This is effective versus zone coverage because it puts a horizontal stretch on the flat defender. Versus man coverage, the tight end converts his stick route to a quick out and the quarterback can throw to whichever receiver has the best matchup.
Right here, Georgia is playing man coverage so Wolf converts his route to a quick out. He’s able to use his size to get in great position versus the Bulldogs’ linebacker and make the catch, then use his strength to fall forwards another 2 yards.
Later in the first half, Tennessee called a packaged play and once again threw to Wolf versus man coverage. The play called for Wolf to run a seam route while the line and running back execute inside zone. Worley read middle linebacker Ramik Wilson to determine if he should throw to Wolf or hand off to running back Jalen Hurd. Here, Wilson took one step downhill to defend the run and this is all Worley needed to see. He pulled the ball out and prepared to throw to Wolf.Wilson realized what we were doing and recovered to defend Wolf quickly. By this point Worley had already pulled the ball and Wolf was his only receiving option, so he quickly fired the ball in Wolf’s direction. Wolf was able to leap in the air and once again use his size to make a great catch for a 17 yard gain.
Wolf also showed a knack for getting open versus zone coverage. In the fourth quarter, the Vols called shallow cross, a play that involves one receiver running a shallow crossing route while another runs a dig route behind it. The quarterback is to make a hi-lo read on the linebacker to determine who to throw to. On this play, Wolf ran the dig route. Georgia was using a cover 2 zone coverage.
Later in the fourth quarter, the Vols ran 4 verticals versus the Bulldogs’ cover 2 zone.
Wolf also has been a very good blocker for the Vols, especially considering he is a true freshman. Against Arkansas State, Tennessee ran outside zone behind Wolf. His assignment was to block the strongside defensive end.
Wolf did a good job to get outside the end then begin to drive him downfield. Wolf completed his block, sealing off the edge so the running back could get outside the run and driving the end to the ground.
Head coach Butch Jones said after the Georgia game, “Ethan brings a whole other dynamic to our offense, and he’s another individual where you can see the growth, the maturation and the confidence building week in and week out. I thought he made some great plays with the ball in the air, did some good things blocking.”
So far in his short Tennessee career, Wolf has shown an impressive ability to make a catch in just about any circumstance and has been one of the Vols better blockers. Wolf has been able to find the soft spot in zone coverage while also being able to use his size to get open versus man coverage. Wolf is a special talent and his addition to the Vols roster makes them so much more dynamic.
Wolf is wearing the number 82 as a tribute to Jason Witten, a former Vols tight end and current All-Pro tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. If Wolf keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be the best tight end to wear the orange in Neyland Stadium since Witten.